Gallstones: What You Need to Know

One of the most common digestive problems, gallstones are made from the bile in the gallbladder and consist primarily of cholesterol and calcium bilirubinate.

Risk factors for having gallstones include being over 40, female, obese and of native descent.

When one eats a fatty meal, the gallbladder releases bile into the duodenum in order to help digest the fat. Once gallstones develop, eating a fatty meal often means pain in the upper right part of the abdomen, which may radiate to the right shoulder, and possibly vomiting and nausea.

In some cases, the stone may get stuck and cause inflammation of the gallbladder (cholecystitis), which often requires urgent gallbladder removal. At the very least, stones may cause pain if they block or distend the ducts through which bile is excreted into the duodenum.

For people with gallstones, one way to decrease attacks is to avoid fatty meals.

There are also medications used to attempt to dissolve the stones. A procedure called an ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography) can be used to visualize and remove stones with a scope through the mouth. ESWL (extracorporeal shockwave lithotripsy), also used for kidney stones, is a procedure that utilizes acoustic pulses to break down the stone into smaller pieces that will pass more easily, less painfully.

The most definitive treatment is surgical removal of the gallbladder, which is often performed laparoscopically for uncomplicated cases. This means small incisions and decreased recovery time. Most people are able to digest well without a gallbladder, although a minority may continue to have digestive issues (upset stomach, nausea, gas, bloating, diarrhea, abdominal pain) after surgery.

To prevent the development of gallstones, eat healthily – lots of fruits and vegetables and avoiding saturated fats and sugar – and exercise.
—Zachary Levine

Dr. Zachary Levine is an assistant professor in the faculty of medicine at McGill University Health Centre and medical correspondent for AM740 (a ZoomerMedia property).