Gallstones Causes and Symptoms

Your gallbladder is located in your abdomen and supports healthy digestion. However, when it doesn’t function correctly, gallstones can occur. Understanding the causes and symptoms of gallstones can ensure you seek prompt treatment. 

At our private practice in Milton Keynes, Mr Achal Khanna is an expert in gallstones, their removal, and curating the right treatment plan for your needs.

What are gallstones?

Gallstones are typically composed of bilirubin (a waste product) or cholesterol. These materials concentrate and harden the bile in your gallbladder into stones that collect at the bottom. Bile continues to flow over the gallstones, causing them to collect even more materials and grow larger. Gallstones can range in size; they can be as small as a grain of sand or as large as a table tennis ball. 

Mostly, they will not cause any issues. However, if they move into your bile ducts, they can lead to uncomfortable symptoms. Larger gallstones tend to cause fewer health problems as they remain in the gallbladder. The smaller ones can travel through the body and bring about blockages. Despite this, any gallstone can cause symptoms and call for surgery to treat the condition.

What causes gallstones?

Although we know how to treat gallstones, we don’t know exactly why they develop. Experts believe chemical imbalances in the bile in the gallbladder, such as too much cholesterol or unusually high levels of bilirubin, may cause gallstones. 

Others think gallstones might be due to the gallbladder not emptying properly, creating blockages. Although the cause remains unclear, effective treatment is available.

Gallstones risk factors

Despite not knowing why gallstones occur, some factors put you at a higher risk of developing them. These risk factors include: 

  • High cholesterol (causing excess cholesterol to enter your gallbladder)
  • Being overweight
  • Diabetes
  • Age (being over 40)
  • Being a woman (possibly due to changes in female hormones experienced during pregnancy and/or menopause)

Gallstones can develop at any age but it can take between 10 and 20 years before they cause noticeable symptoms — hence being more common in those over 40. 

Rapid weight loss can contribute to gallstones developing because losing significant body fat at once can send high amounts of cholesterol into your liver for processing. This excess cholesterol ends up in your bile and potentially causes gallstones. 

What is gallstone pain like?

The pain of gallstones is often sudden and occurs in the upper-right abdomen, just beneath your breast bone. However, you can feel pain across your abdomen and even in your shoulders. 

Generally, pain lasts between 15 minutes and five hours and will worsen over time. The pain attacks can come and go, seemingly with no fixed pattern. 

Signs and symptoms of gallstones

The most common symptom of gallstones is rapid, intense abdominal pain. Other symptoms can include: 

  • A fever 
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Jaundice (a yellowing of your skin or the whites of your eyes)
  • Dark urine 
  • Light-coloured stools

However, gallstones don’t always cause symptoms and you might not even know you have them. 

Gallstone complications

If a gallstone blocks your cystic duct, it can cause inflammation and infection — known as cholecystitis — frequently accompanied by intense pain. It requires surgery to remove the gallbladder.

Gallstones blocking the bile ducts can cause jaundice, dark urine and skin itching, requiring immediate medical attention. Your pancreas may also become inflamed if you have gallstones, a condition that can be serious if it isn’t treated fast.

Gallstones management and treatment

Gallstones are treatable. The main treatment for gallstones is gallbladder removal and medication to dissolve your gallstones. However, if you have yet to have the gallbladder removed, you can make some lifestyle changes to ease your symptoms and stop them from returning.

The right treatment for you will depend on your specific circumstances and the severity of your condition. Mr Achal Khanna provides all his patients with the best care and treatment for their needs. Book your consultation today.