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The hard word on gallstones

woman holding abdomen

When it comes to unpleasant things your body produces, gallstones are the poor second cousin to kidney stones.

Everyone knows someone with a horror kidney stone story – more painful than childbirth apparently – but gallstones are less well known, and they shouldn’t be.

So what is a gall bladder, what does it do and how do you treat gallstones?

The gall bladder is a small pouch tucked under the liver. It holds bile, a digestive juice the body uses to break down dietary fats. The body extracts water from the bile until the liquid becomes concentrated. Fatty foods trigger the gall bladder to squeeze its contents into the small intestine to help with digestion.

Read: What our ‘kidney clock’ can tell us about our age on the inside

Gallstones are small stones in the gall bladder, made from cholesterol, bile pigment and calcium salts.

Medical treatment isn’t usually necessary unless they are causing problems. They can range in size from as small as a grain of sand to as large as a golf ball. Some people develop just one gallstone, while others develop many.

There is no single cause for gallstones, but medical explanations include the bile containing too much cholesterol, the gall bladder doesn’t empty correctly which concentrates the bile or the bile contains too much bilirubin, a chemical that’s produced to break down red blood cells. They can be diagnosed through X-rays and scans.

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Risk factors include being female, aged 40 or older, being overweight or obese, being pregnant, a high cholesterol diet, a family history of gallstones, liver disease, diabetes and losing weight very quickly.

Symptoms include pain in the abdomen, back and shoulder blades, nausea or vomiting, increase in pain after eating a fatty meal, jaundice and fever and pain if the gall bladder or bile duct has become infected. Gallstone pain may last several minutes to a few hours.

Complications that may require medical treatment include inflammation of the gall bladder, pancreatitis, infection of the liver and very rarely cancer of the gall bladder.

Read: How to reverse liver damage

While all this sounds grim, there is no need to panic. The Victorian government’s Better Health website claims about 70 per cent of all gallstones cause no symptoms at all. However, about 80 per cent of people who experience symptoms will require surgery.

Treatment includes modifying the diet to limit fatty foods and dairy products, shattering the stones with a lithotripsy, a procedure that sends shockwaves to break up the stones, medication and surgery.

If surgery is required, the two options are to remove the entire gall bladder or just the stones from the bile ducts. Follow-up surgery is rare.

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Health disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

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