We all have a gallbladder but most of us do not spend much time thinking about it. Those that do are probably among the 25 million or so Americans who suffer from gallstones.
The pear-shaped gallbladder sits below the liver in the upper right-hand corner of the abdomen. It is connected to the liver and to the small intestine by several tubes called bile ducts. Its purpose is to store bile, a liquid which is produced by the liver that helps us digest fat. After a meal, the gallbladder contracts and sends bile into the intestine. Once a meal has been digested, the gallbladder stops sending bile and returns to its old job of storing up bile for our next steak dinner.
Bile is a brown liquid made up of bile salts, cholesterol, bilirubin and lecithin. Bile salts and lecithin help break up fat so that it can be digested more easily. Bilirubin, which gives both bile and stool their characteristic color, is a waste product.
Problems begin when some of the components of bile form hard crystals (or stones). Most gallstones are made up of either cholesterol or bilirubin but not both. Because they range in size from as small as a grain of sand to as large as a golf ball, a gallbladder may contain anywhere from one stone to hundreds. These gallstones may cause problems in the gallbladder or in the bile duct, or they may cause no problems at all.
We are not sure why gallstones happen but we do know that people with high levels of cholesterol in their bile are more likely to develop cholesterol stones and those with high levels of bilirubin are more likely to develop bilirubin stones. Problems with the gallbladder muscle, causing incomplete emptying of the gallbladder, also seem to play a part in gallstone development. Exactly how diet affects gallstone formation is not well understood but it is suspected that a diet high in cholesterol and fat can increase a person's risk of developing gallstones
The most typical first sign of gallstones is pain -- sometimes excruciating pain -- in the upper abdomen or right side. This is sometimes accompanied by fever, vomiting or sweating. The most common treatment is surgical removal of the gallbladder, although there are other treatments, depending on the type of gallstone, the severity of a person's attacks and the presence of complications such as infection.
Most treatments are much more successful if they are given early on. Anyone who thinks they might have gallstones should see a doctor as soon as possible.
- Steady pain in the upper abdomen that worsens rapidly and lasts as long as several hours
- Pain in the back between the shoulder blades
- Pain under the right shoulder
- Nausea or vomiting
- Abdominal bloating
- Recurring intolerance of fatty foods
- Low-grade fever
- Yellowish color of the skin or whites of the eyes
- Clay-colored stools
- Increasing age, females
- Ethnicity: Pima Indians, Scandinavians
- Family history of gallstones on the mother's side
- Obesity, rapid weight loss, fasting, tube feeding or total parenteral nutrition (TPN)
- Drugs: fibric acid derivatives, cholesterol-reducing drugs, contraceptive steroids (birth control pills) and postmenopausal estrogen, progesterone, octreotide, ceftriaxone (hormone replacement therapy)
- Crohn's disease, certain types of surgery involving the digestive system, hyperlipidemia (excess fat in the bloodstream) and diabetes.1,2
As many as one-third of patients with gallstones have symptoms; the remaining two thirds either never know that they have the disease or find out accidentally, for instance by having an X-ray or CT scan for another purpose. The most common symptom is called biliary colic; this occurs in 70% to 80% of gallstone sufferers. The main feature of biliary colic is severe pain above the stomach area or less frequently in the upper right-hand section of the abdomen. The term biliary colic is a little misleading because the pain is steady, not colicky. A large meal may bring on an attack of biliary colic. More often than not, however, there is no warning or apparent cause.
Biliary colic occurs more commonly at night, often with a sudden onset and increasing intensity over a 15-20 minute period, ending in a steady plateau which can last for several hours. The pain may spread to the area around the right shoulder. Nausea, vomiting and sweating often follow. The pain may gradually go away or decrease, becoming a less severe but persistent abdominal pain. The time period between biliary colic attacks is extremely variable; it may be weeks, months or even years.
When the pain of an attack lasts longer than several hours, it may mean that the gallbladder has become inflamed. This condition, called cholecystitis, can lead to an infection of the gallbladder. Patients with cholecystitis are normally hospitalized for observation, treatment with antibiotics and pain medications, sometimes followed by surgery. Elderly people suffering from acute cholecystitis sometimes do not have any pain or fever, and soreness or tenderness in the abdomen may be their only symptom. Jaundice develops in 15% of those with acute cholecystitis.
In some rare cases, acute cholecystitis is caused not by gallstones but by infections such as salmonella food poisoning. Cytomegalovirus and cryptosporidia infections have also been found to cause cholecystitis in severely immunocompromised patients, such as those with AIDS or those who have recently undergone bone marrow transplantation.
Two tests help doctors find gallstones within the gallbladder. The first, ultrasound, uses sound waves to detect hard objects. In the second, oral cholecystogram (or OCG), an X-ray is taken of the gallbladder after the patient swallows pills containing dye. These tests are extremely accurate. Ultrasound is more common because it is non-invasive and does not involve exposure to X-rays.
It is more difficult to detect gallstones that have entered the bile duct because ultrasound is much less sensitive in the bile duct and OCG cannot be used at all. The best tests involve putting X-ray dye directly into the bile ducts. A flexible swallowed tube can be used (endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography or ERCP), or a needle can be passed through the liver and into the bile ducts (percutaneous transhepatic cholangiography or PTC). These tests both carry a small amount of risk, require the use of an X-ray and may be uncomfortable or require patients to be sedated. But thanks to recent technological advances, there is now a non-invasive alternative -- CAT scan and MRI data can be processed into a three dimensional image that offers diagnostic accuracy comparable to ERCP.
According to the studies, 60% to 80% of all gallstones are asymptomatic; that is, they cause no pain or other symptoms. In most cases, this means that little or no treatment is needed. One exception, however, is when asymptomatic gallstones occur in people who are at high risk for developing cancer of the gallbladder. This includes those with a generally calcified ("porcelain") gallbladder, those with gallstones greater than 2.5 cm in size, those with gallbladder polyps greater than 10 mm in diameter and Pima Indians. People in these categories may want to consider seeking treatment even if they have no pain or other symptoms.
Studies of gallstone sufferers have revealed that 38% to 50% of those with biliary colic will have another attack within a year. We also know that as much as 90% of gallstone complications, including acute cholecystitis, are preceded by attacks of biliary colic. There is a 1 to 2% per year risk of developing biliary complications after an initial attack of biliary colic. On the other hand, a third of those who suffer an attack of biliary colic will never have a recurrence.
In most cases, acute cholecystitis is treated with emergency surgery to remove the entire gallbladder (cholecystectomy). The sooner this is done, the better -- usually within 24 to 48 hours after diagnosis. Laparoscopic cholecystectomy, also called "belly-button surgery," is a new technique that is taking the place of traditional open surgery. In the open technique, the gallbladder is removed through an incision in the abdomen several inches long. Four or five days of hospitalization, followed by weeks of recuperation at home, are usually needed.
There are alternatives to surgery for both stones in the gallbladder and stones in the bile duct. ERCP can be used not only to find stones in the bile duct but also to remove them. For elderly patients or those too frail for surgery, removal of bile duct stones can relieve symptoms. Stones can also be dissolved by certain chemicals taken in pill form. Unfortunately, this works only on small cholesterol stones.
A big drawback of all non-surgical approaches is that gallstones eventually recur in about half of all patients treated, unless they change their diet.
About half of the 20 million American adults who have gallstones don't have symptoms. In the remaining sufferers, these collections of solid crystals in the gallbladder or bile ducts may cause severe pain under the breastbone or in the upper right side of the abdomen, especially after meals.
The presence of such crystals can irritate the gallbladder and promote infection. Even a single, large stone developing in the gallbladder predisposes that organ to cancer.
Best foods: Fruits, legumes and vegetables and anything that's low in fat. Fatty foods stimulate gallbladder contractions that can precipitate attacks.
Bonus: The fiber in plant-based foods interacts with bile in the gallbladder and reduces stone formation. A high-fiber diet may dissolve existing stones and also helps with weight loss.
Warning: People who are just 10% overweight are twice as likely to get gallstones as those who maintain a healthful weight.
Helpful: Get 35 g to 45 g of fiber daily. Eat at least five daily servings of fruits and vegetables, along with whole-grain pasta and breads, legumes and other high-fiber foods.
Good choices: One cup of baked beans (13 g of fiber)...one medium baked potato (4 g)...one large apple (5 g)...or one-half cup All-Bran (10 g).
- 1 Flush Experience:
There are 30 of 288 participants (10%) who flushed 1 time only:
There are 4 of 30 participants (13%) who reported a cure of some symptoms:
- 2 Flush Experience:
There are 36 of 288 participants (12%) who flushed 2 times only:
There are 8 of 36 participants (23%) who reported a cure of some symptoms:
- 3 Flush Experience:
There are 26 of 288 participants (12%) who flushed 3 times only:
There are 8 of 26 participants (31%) who reported a cure of some symptoms:
- 4 Flush Experience
There are 29 of 288 participants (10%) who flushed 4 times only:
There are 12 of 29 participants (41%) who reported a cure of some symptoms:
- 5 Flush Experience:
There are 23 of 288 participants (8%) who flushed 5 times only:
There are 10 of 23 participants (43%) who reported a cure of some symptoms:
- 6 Flush Experience:
There are 22 of 288 participants (8%) who flushed 6 times only:
There are 8 of 22 participants (36%) who reported a cure of some symptoms:
- 7 to 10 Flush Experience:
There are 51 of 288 participants (18%) who flushed 7 to 10 times only:
There are 26 of 51 participants (51%) who reported a cure of some symptoms:
- 11 to 15 Flush Experience:
There are 16 of 288 participants (6%) who flushed 11 to 15 times only:
There are 8 of 16 participants (50%) who reported a cure of some symptoms:
|# Of Gallbladder Flushes||% Of People Cured Of Some Symptoms|
|7 To 10 flushes||51%|
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