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Recognizing symptoms of gallstones

medical illustration showing gallstones | GI NorthIn ancient medicine, gall (or bile), was described as one of the four humours. The apparent importance of bile led to the development of expressions like “he has a lot of gall!” to describe someone with ample self-confidence. While its actual role is slightly more humble, bile only comes to attention for most people when it causes the formation of gallstones.

The gall and its bladder

Bile is a digestive fluid produced by the liver that helps to breakdown fats and other lipids. Compounds called bile salts play a primary role in the function of bile. Bilirubin, a pigmented compound released during the natural breakdown of old red blood cells, is also found in bile and provides its distinctive yellow-green color. Bile also contains some fats and cholesterol released from the liver.

Bile is collected and concentrated in the gallbladder, a small pear-shaped pouch that sits nestled under the liver. Lipid-containing meals stimulate the release of bile from the gallbladder into the digestive tract to help ensure proper digestion.

Gallstone formation

Changes in the function of the liver or gallbladder can lead to an over-accumulation of normal bile components. Just as an excess accumulation of moisture in the air causes rain to fall, excess bile compounds can begin to clump and precipitate out of the bile as small ‘stones.’

Gallstones are described as either pigmented, because they are comprised of bilirubin, or cholesterol stones. Factors such as obesity or drugs that cause the overproduction of cholesterol by the liver increase the risk of cholesterol stone formation. Decreased activity of the gallbladder, termed hypomobility, leads to super concentrated bile, also referred to as biliary sludge, an important step toward the development of gallstones.

Symptoms of gallstones

Most often, gallstones are asymptomatic. As many as 85% of people who have gallstones do not have any symptoms. For those who have symptoms, one of the most characteristic gallstone symptoms is a sharp pain in the upper right portion of the abdomen that radiates to the back, the right shoulder or shoulder blade.

As gallstone formation progresses; the frequency, nature and severity of symptoms can evolve. In addition to the characteristic location of the abdominal pain, gallstones can be associated with nausea, vomiting, and indigestion that is often worst for several hours after high-fat meals.

Cholecystitis: a serious potential complication

If a gallstone becomes lodged in the duct connecting the gallbladder to the intestines, the resulting block of bile flow can cause inflammation or infection of the gallbladder, a condition referred to as cholecystitis that can be a medical emergency. Symptoms of cholecystitis can include worsening of gallstone symptoms, abdominal tenderness and fever.

Some patients who develop cholecystitis also develop jaundice, a yellow discoloration of the skin caused by the deposition of excess biliary bilirubin in the skin and sclera, the whites of the eyes. Restoration of the flow of bile is key to the treatment of jaundice and other symptoms of gallstone disease.

The right gallstone advice at the right time

While intended to be informative, this article cannot replace professional medical advice. If you are concerned about the potential symptoms of or treatments for gallstones, please contact GI North or a healthcare professional in your area.

Consider turning to GI North for more information on gallstone symptoms and treatments. At GI North, Dr. Simon Cofrancesco and Dr. Sergio Quijano offer comprehensive diagnostics as well as a variety of treatments for gallstones.

Dr. Simon Cofrancesco and Dr. Sergio Quijano lead the GI North team from their office in Cumming, GA and are proud to also serve the Alpharetta, Milton, Roswell, Canton, and Suwanee areas. For medical services in Spanish, please ask for Dr. Sergio Quijano.

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