What are gallstones?

Gallstones are crystal-like deposits that develop in the gallbladder. The function of the gallbladder is to store bile, a digestive juice produced by the liver. Bile is required to digest a fatty meal. Gallstones are very common, and affect 20% of the world population.

What causes gallstones?

  • Gallstones form because of an imbalance in the components in the bile, which interferes with the dissolving capacity of the bile salts.
  • Delays or incomplete emptying the gallbladder, as in pregnancy, is another factor in the formation of gallstones.
  • A chronic infection in the bile may also contribute to gallstone formation.
  • Excessive fat in the diet can cause the liver to produce more cholesterol than the bile acids are able to handle. As a result, the excess cholesterol begins to solidify into crystals, forming gallstones.
  • A diet deprived of fat, may also cause gallstones. Because the gallbladder is called into play less frequently the cholesterol has more time to solidify.
  • Cirrhosis, using oral contraceptives and pregnancy are also contributing factors.

What are the symptoms of gallstones?

Over a period of five years, approximately 10% of people with stones will develop symptoms. Symptoms only occur when there is a temporary obstruction of the outflow tract of the gallbladder, by a stone. When such obstruction occurs, you might experience the following:

  • Pain, which can wake the sufferer from sleep.
  • Pain felt in the middle and upper right abdomen, and may travel to the right shoulder, back or neck.
  • Pain subsides gradually, but could last for hours.
  • Pain inducing nausea and vomiting.
  • Sufferer may develop fatty food intolerance.
  • Recurring indigestion.
  • Jaundice.

How are gallstones treated?

Many of those with gallstones may never realise that they have them. Investigations such as Ultrasound examination or x-ray of the Gall Bladder will demonstrate the stones.

Those who experience frequent attacks of painful inflammation or infection as a result of the stones may be advised to have a cholecystectomy (Gall Bladder removal). This may be performed conventionally or by "key-hole " surgery where the surgeon uses a small telescope through a small incision in the right upper abdomen to remove the offending stones and gall bladder. This results in shorter hospitalisation and convalescence. The use of shock waves has also proven very successful - gallstones are fragmented by shock waves delivered through water.

Can I prevent gallstones?

  • A sensible diet is the best way forward, with plenty of fibre, fruit and vegetables, wholegrain cereals and bran.
  • Avoid dramatically increasing or decreasing your intake of fat.
  • Consume a moderate level of olive oil.
  • Lecithin can prevent gallstones by keeping cholesterol from solidifying in the gallbladder. Lecithin is found in mayonnaise, yoghurt, eggs, milk, peanuts.

How does the future look?

  • Educate yourself on the symptoms, preventative measures and causes. Generally the more you know about your condition, the better able you are to cope with it.
  • Surgery has proven very successful.
  • Contact your doctor if the symptoms persist. It is important to rule out the possibility of other diseases.

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