Gallbladder stones are lumps that form in the gallbladder or bile duct. Also known as gallstones, these lumps are often not serious but need treatment if a duct becomes blocked. Although gallbladder stones do not commonly cause symptoms, it can cause pain, discomfort, nausea, and vomiting.
The Structure and Function of the Gallbladder:
The gallbladder is a tiny sac-like organ in the body that is located beneath the liver, in the upper right area of the abdomen. The gallbladder is part of the body’s biliary system together with the bile ducts, pancreas, and liver. The biliary system is responsible for bile production and transportation in the body.
The gallbladder stores bile until it is needed by the body. Bile is secreted by the liver cells to help break down fats during the process of digestion as well as to carry away wastes from the liver. Bile is greenish-yellow in color and contains different substances such as cholesterol, bilirubin, bile salts, water, sodium, and potassium. Whenever an individual consumes a meal that contains fats and cholesterol, the gallbladder will contract and release bile through the common bile duct, which will then go to the small intestine to aid in the process of digestion.
How Gallbladder Stones Form:
Gallstones form when there is an imbalance in the contents of bile such as excessive cholesterol, excessive bilirubin, insufficient bile salts, or when the gallbladder does not empty regularly. The gallbladder stone can be as tiny as a grain of sand and it can also form a lump as big as a golf ball. Some stones develop inside the gallbladder while some may form in the bile ducts, causing obstruction.
Risks for Developing Gallbladder Stones:
There are two basic types of gallbladder stones, namely cholesterol gallstones and pigment gallstones. Cholesterol gallbladder stone forms due to excessive cholesterol in the bile and is the most common type of gallstones in the U.S. Risk factors for cholesterol gallstones include being female, pregnancy, obesity, diabetes, and rapid weight loss.
Pigment gallbladder stone, on the other hand, forms due to excessive bilirubin in the bile. Bilirubin is normally produced as a waste product when red blood cells are broken down in the liver. This type of gallstone is more common in individuals with liver disease, blood disorders, and biliary tract infections.
Surgery for Gallstones:
In individuals who do not experience any symptoms from gallstones, it is not necessary to undergo any type of treatment. For those who experience frequent bouts of symptoms such as pain, nausea, and vomiting, it may be necessary to undergo a cholecystectomy, an operation wherein the gallbladder is surgically removed. Cholecystectomy is commonly done with the aid of a laparoscope, a fiber optic instrument that allows the surgeon to view the internal structures within the pelvis without the need to make a large incision in the body. Since laparoscopic cholecystectomy is a minimally invasive surgery, hospital time is cut short and the individual can resume normal activities within a few days.
In patients with severe infection or inflammation of the gallbladder, an open cholecystectomy may be more suitable. An incision that is 5 to 8 inches long is made on the abdomen to remove the gallbladder and this leads to longer hospital stay and weeks of down time from normal activities.
Nonsurgical Options for Gallbladder Stones:
Nonsurgical treatment for gallstones is used when the patient cannot undergo surgery due to a medical condition and is applicable only for individuals with cholesterol gallstones. There is a chance of gallbladder stones to recur when nonsurgical treatment is used, usually within a period of 5 years. Nonsurgical treatment for gallstones includes oral dissolution therapy and extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy (ESWL).
Do You Need Your Gallbladder?
The gallbladder does not cause any harm to the health if it is removed. The liver produces bile needed for digestion and other functions and the gallbladder serves as bile’s storage space. When the gallbladder is removed, bile flows from the hepatic duct to the common bile duct and straight to the small intestine. This can cause more frequent passing of soft stools but is usually temporary.
Gallstones do not need to be treated unless it causes symptoms. There is a possibility of complications such as pancreatitis, a condition wherein the pancreas become inflamed, which usually requires surgical removal of the gallbladder. Some studies say that a diet low in cholesterol and fat can prevent gallstone formation but there is no conclusive evidence yet.