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Could your pain be due to gallstones?

You’ve heard of kidney stones and the horrible pain they cause, but have you heard of gallstones? Under your liver, there’s a pear-shaped sac called the gallbladder. This small organ has the job of storing bile (a digestive juice made by the liver) and secreting this substance into the small intestine to help digest food. When bile contains too much cholesterol or pigments, hard particles can form ranging in size from a grain of sand to the size of a golf ball. Many people can have gallstones and never know it, but for those who experience symptoms, the pain can’t be ignored.

Here’s what you should know about gallstones.

Who’s at Risk?

The biggest risk factor for gallstones is obesity. Being overweight raises your cholesterol and hinders the gallbladder from completely emptying its contents. Weight isn’t the only thing that puts you at risk. Your parents do, too. That’s because gallstones seem to be hereditary, so if your mom, dad, or siblings have suffered from gallstones, you’re at an increased risk.

Women and older folks are more prone to this condition, as are diabetics and those on drugs to lower cholesterol. Since the hormone estrogen raises cholesterol and hinders gallbladder function, pregnant women and women on birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy may be more prone to develop stones.

Even folks trying to get healthy are at risk, so be careful how quickly you lose weight. Losing too fast causes your liver to secrete more cholesterol than normal and fasting slows gallbladder function, putting you at increased gallstone risk.
At the same time, a poor diet increases your risk. Too much fat and cholesterol and not enough fiber make conditions favorable for gallstones to form.

What Do They Feel Like?

If you have gallstones, they will hopefully be the silent type without any symptoms. In the event you’re fortunate to have such gallstones, you won’t know you have them until tests for other conditions reveal them. Stones without symptoms can be left alone without treatment.

Not everyone is so fortunate. When gallstones get stuck in a duct and block the secretion of bile, you may experience pain in your upper back, upper abdomen, and right shoulder that lasts for a few minutes to several hours. Nausea, vomiting, indigestion, heartburn, gas, and bloating are other common symptoms.

What Will the Doctor Do?

Any time you have unexplained pain you should see your doctor. Seek immediate help if your symptoms are like those listed above. Various tests are used to diagnose gallstones, including blood tests, different types of ultrasounds, a CT scan, or a special scan used to test gallbladder function.

Unlike kidney stones, gallstones aren’t just removed. The majority of the time, a diagnosis of gallstones requires surgery to remove the gallbladder. Called a cholecystectomy, this surgery can now be done laparoscopically, so it’s minimally invasive and offers a quicker recovery. When the gallbladder is removed, bile flows straight from your liver to the small intestine without negative consequences.

For those who aren’t good candidates for surgery, medication can be taken to dissolve the gallstones, though it may take years for the stones to go away, if they go away at all.

Can I Prevent Gallstones?

Gallstones can strike anyone at anytime, but there are a few steps you can take to reduce your risk. A good start to gallstone prevention is to eat meals at regular times each day. Skipping meals or going long periods without eating can increase the likelihood of gallstones.

Planning to lose weight? Make it a slow, gradual process. One to two pounds a week is considered safe and healthy. While trimming down at a fast and furious pace may be your goal, losing too quickly will put you at risk for gallstones.

But don’t let the slow-and-steady approach keep you from your goals. Obesity is the number one risk factor for gallstones, so do what it takes to maintain a healthy weight through exercise and diet.

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