Gallstones are the most common and costly digestive disease in the United States, causing more than 800,000 hospitalizations annually at estimated cost of over five billion dollars. More than 20 million Americans have gallstones and approximately one million new cases are diagnosed each year. Women are twice as likely as men to develop gallstones; the higher prevalence of gallstones in women is thought to be caused by multiple pregnancies, obesity, and rapid weight loss. Well over half a million people undergo cholecystectomy (surgical removal of the gallbladder) each year.
The normal function of the gallbladder is to store bile produced by the liver, and to aid in the digestion and absorption of fats in the duodenum (the first portion of the small intestine).
Gallstones compose a solid formation of cholesterol and bile salts. However, research shows that approximately 80 to 90 percent of all gallstones are cholesterol gallstones which form when the liver begins secreting bile that is abnormally saturated with cholesterol. The excess cholesterol crystallizes and then forms stones which are stored in the gallbladder or the cystic duct. Gallstones can also form due to low levels of bile acids and bile lecithin.
When the symptoms of gallstones occur they are often called an "attack" because they occur suddenly. The typical gallstone attack includes:
Steady, severe pain in the upper abdomen that increases rapidly and lasts from 30 minutes to several hours.
Pain in the back between the shoulder blades.
Pain under the right shoulder.
Nausea or vomiting.
Gallstone attacks often follow fatty meals, and they may occur during the night. Although I was lucky not to have too much nausea and vomiting with my gallstones, one of my most vivid childhood memories is of my mother up at night, in the bathroom, vomiting.
Other symptoms of gallstones include:
Recurring intolerance of fatty foods.
The following symptoms are indication that you should seek immediate medical attention:
Yellowish color of the skin or whites of the eyes.
Many people have gallstones with no symptoms, these people are called asymptomatic. Gallstones that cause no symptoms are called "silent stones." Silent stones do not interfere in gallbladder, liver, or pancreas function and do not require treatment.