It’s believed that over 25 million Americans have gallstones, and every year thousands of people suffer the excruciating pain of an inflamed gallbladder—a pain that has been described as feeling like a heart attack, and can be as severe as giving birth. But what causes gallstones, and what can be done when your gallbladder becomes inflamed?
What is the gallbladder?
The gallbladder is an pear-shaped organ that sits in the right-hand side of your abdomen, near your liver. It contains an acidic substance called ‘bile’, which breaks down fat and helps us to digest food. Sometimes, gallstones form in the gallbladder, ranging in size from a tiny, grit-like speck to a large golf ball. Many people have small gallstones that don’t cause any trouble at all, but when one of the stones blocks a duct (such as the bile duct or the pancreatic duct), the gallbladder can quickly get inflamed, leading to cholecystitis and intense pain.
How are gallstones formed?
There are several different causes for gallstones. If the liver produces excess cholesterol, any that can’t be processed can crystallize and become a gallstone. Gallstones can also result from too much bilirubin in your blood, or by your gallbladder not emptying properly, allowing the bile to become concentrated and cause gallstones to form.
Who is most likely to suffer from gallstones?
Gallstone patients are usually over 60 years old, with women being twice as likely to develop them. This condition is more typical in Native Americans and Mexican Americans, although those with White European heritage are also at risk. An over-rich diet, as well as being overweight or obese can also increase your chances, and those with health conditions such as diabetes are known to be more susceptible. Losing weight rapidly (e.g. going on a crash diet) can trigger a gallbladder attack, and if you’re taking certain medications then you may also develop troublesome gallstones more easily.
What are the symptoms of an inflamed gallbladder?
The most obvious sign of a gallbladder attack is intense and rapidly increasing pain, located in the upper right abdomen or in the middle just under the breastbone. This can radiate to the back between the shoulder blades and up to the right shoulder. Shifting or changing positions doesn’t bring any relief. In some cases the pain may ease quickly, although you may find it rumbles on intermittently, flaring up now and again. But often the pain continues, and if left untreated can lead to further complications such as jaundice.
What is the treatment?
If your gallstones don’t give you any trouble, or if you only have occasional pain, you’ll probably be advised use painkillers when required, follow a healthy, low-fat diet, and lose weight if that could be a factor. Often, this approach is sufficient to keep the condition under control and nothing else needs to be done.
However, if you have large gallstones or acute cholecystitis, you may find your doctor recommends having your gallbladder removed. Doctors usually prefer to wait until any inflammation has subsided, because your gallbladder is less likely to rupture and cause complications if it has settled down, allowing the surgery to be done via a less invasive, ‘keyhole’ procedure. This is a much better option as the recovery time is much quicker and leaves minimal scarring. It only takes around an hour, and you typically only need to go into hospital as a day patient. After surgery, you’ll likely be advised to follow a low-fat diet to avoid further problems.
However, sometimes keyhole surgery isn’t the best option—for example, if you’re in the last 3 months of pregnancy or very obese. If you have conventional surgery, it’s done through an incision that’s several inches long. You’ll need to stay in hospital for several days, and it takes about six weeks to recover.
Can I prevent gallbladder problems?
Naturally, some factors for increasing the risk of gallstones can’t be influenced, such as hereditary factors or an underlying condition like diabetes. That being said, you can significantly lower your risk by eating a low-fat diet and maintaining a healthy weight. Many people with gallstones manage to enjoy pain-free lives by managing their diet carefully and avoiding any specific foods that cause inflammation.