What are gallstones and why do we get them?

You ate hours ago, but your food feels like it’s lodged in your chest, unable to digest past a huge impenetrable barrier. Nothing helps, not deep breathing; water makes it worse, and you can’t lie down comfortably without a stabbing pain between your shoulder blades.

It may be gallstones. First thing to know: they are named as such but these lurkers aren’t really “stones.” Gallstones are more like solid bits of material that form in your gallbladder. They can be microscopic or grow into sizeable bits.

Get to know your gallbladder
This organ is shaped like a pear and lives just under the liver. We usually aren’t even aware of this little part until it starts causing a problem – and that problem is when gallstones block a bile duct. Think of your gallbladder as a transit point in your system. It connects to the intestine and liver through little tubes (bile ducts). Bile ducts carry bile that works as an absorbent liquid, breaking up fat into small droplets. Bile also helps your body absorb Vitamins A, D, E and K. Bile is concentrated and stored in the gallbladder, ready for use and only released when we eat.

When gallstones attack
You probably don’t even know you have gallstones! Most people aren’t aware of these insidious lurkers until the wall of the gallbladder becomes inflamed or the stones block passage to the intestine. The bad news is that this isn’t really a preventable condition. Gallstones can occur in extremely healthy people as well as those with poor diets. The two main kinds of stones are cholesterol stones (yellow-green), and are the most common gallstone gremlins. Then there are pigment stones, which are smaller and darker and filled with bile fluid (called bilirubin).

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Why do gallstones attack?
It’s not easy to say as there isn’t a set template for what causes these stones to form. Amongst the most common factors:

  1. Genetics: unfortunately, there’s nothing to be done if your family is inclined to suffering from gallstones.
  2. Weight: this goes both ways; being overweight can lead to gallstones, and conversely, if you’ve lost a lot of weight recently, your body could form gallstones.
  3. Birth control: certain pills and therapies for menopause could result in extra oestrogen in your system. This increases cholesterol and fills up your gallbladder.
  4. Diabetes: higher levels of blood fat could be a risk factor for gallstones.
  5. Gender: females have a higher risk of gallstones, unfortunately.

When you start feeling any of these symptoms, it’s time to see a doctor. Gallstones can be as tiny as grains of rice or sand – and as large as a golf ball!

  • Sweating
  • Chills
  • Low-grade fever
  • Yellowish colour of the skin or whites of the eyes
  • Clay-coloured stools
  • Tight pain in the pack between your shoulder blades or under your right shoulder
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Bloated, distended stomach
  • Indigestion
  • A feeling of being “full” even hours after you’ve eaten.

Doctors can get rid of gallstones through laparoscopic surgery – this is extremely common these days and recovery time is minimal. The surgery essentially finds the gallstones through a little pinhole camera and removes the offenders.

Good to know: Unfortunately, gallstones can form again in a few years’ time – rare but possible.