Gallstones affect more than 30 million Americans. One in three adults has this medical problem. Yet, less than three percent of them show any symptoms. It is estimated that more than 50 percent of women develop gallstones by age 75. Pregnancy, hormone replacement therapy, genetics, obesity, and diabetes contribute to this condition. Its progression depends on whether you have symptoms. Early diagnosis leads to better outcomes.
Symptoms of Gallstones
This health condition may go unnoticed for years. In this case, they don’t require treatment. Their size and number doesn’t influence whether or not patients have symptoms. For this reason, they’re called “silent stones.” However, some people may experience severe pain, inflammation, nausea, and general discomfort. These symptoms usually indicate a gallstone attack.
Statistics show that two out of three people with gallstones have no symptoms at all. In general, symptoms occur when a gallstone temporarily blocks one of the bile ducts. This may cause:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Referred pain below the right shoulder or between the shoulder blades
- Severe pain in the upper right side of the abdomen
- Gas and bloating
- Biliary colic
- Chronic diarrhea
- Abdominal fullness
- Light colored stools
- Tenderness in the abdomen
- Pain that feels dull or sharp
- Pain that worsens after eating fatty foods
In rare cases, patients may develop chronic gallbladder disease, cholecystitis (inflamed gallbladder), or dysfunctional gallbladder. The first symptoms usually include pain in the upper abdominal area. About 20 percent of people with gallstones experience infections because the inflamed gallbladder is attacked by bacteria. Inflammation can last for several hours and even days. Biliary colic episodes are rare and can one or two hours. If you have gallstones for over a decade, they’re less likely to cause discomfort.
Contrary to the popular belief, gallstones don’t cause abdominal distention, belching, or food intolerance. If left untreated, they may trigger complications, such as pancreatitis, sepsis, jaundice, and gangrene of the gallbladder. Some patience can develop gallbladder sludge. Pain can last several minutes to a few hours.
Are Gallstones Dangerous?
Gallstones are not dangerous in more than 90 percent of cases. If they cause no symptoms, then treatment is not required. However, some patients may need immediate help in case of high fever with chills, jaundice, or intense abdominal pain. These symptoms can lead to complications and should not be overlooked. Call your doctor right away if the pain is so intense that you can’t sit or lie comfortable, or if it lasts for longer than eight hours.
How Are Gallstones Diagnosed?
This condition is commonly detected during cholesterol tests, blood tests, X-rays, or ultrasound scans. Blood tests may include amylase, lipase, liver function panel, and a complete blood count with differential. If you experience symptoms, your doctor will be able to give you a diagnosis right away. He may also request a hydroxyiminodiacetic acid (HIDA) cholescintigraphy test, a CT scan, or a MRCP scan to check how your gallbladder is working. Treatment depends on the severity of symptoms. Most patients require pain killers, dietary changes, or surgery.