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If you’ve never suffered from gallstones there is a good possibility that you really have no idea what gallstones are.  It’s not until gallstones become a problem that most people learn (painfully) just what they are. Gallstones are small, hard pebble-like substances that sometimes develop in your gallbladder.  As these stones move out of the gallbladder they can block the ducts that carry bile (the fat-digesting liquid produced by the gallbladder) and the trapped bile can become infected.  Bile duct infections caused by gallstones can affect your pancreas, your liver, or you gallbladder. Any of these infections could be life-threatening if left untreated.

What Causes Gallstones?

There are two types of gallstones, cholesterol stones and pigment stones.  While all the causes of gallstones are not yet known, scientists believe that cholesterol stones are caused by an imbalance of cholesterol and bile salts in the gallbladder or when the gallbladder simply fails to empty completely over an extended period of time. Scientists have no real idea how or why pigment gallstones develop.

A few things that are known is that women develop gallstones about twice as often as men. This could be caused by excess estrogen due to birth control pills, pregnancy, or hormone replacement therapy. Family history can also help determine if you are a likely candidate for gallstones.  Overweight people and people who eat a high cholesterol, high fat, low fiber diet are more likely to develop gallstones. Your ethnicity can also affect your chances of getting gallstones – American Indians have an extremely high rate of gallstones as do Mexican Americans of both sexes. If you have diabetes or if you are taking cholesterol-reducing drugs you also run a higher risk for developing gallstones.

What Are the Symptoms of Gallstones?

One of your first symptoms of a gallbladder attack (as the sudden onset of symptoms are often called) will be a severe pain either in your upper right abdomen, or between your shoulder blades or just under the right shoulder.  Often these sudden, painful attacks follow a high-fat meal and can last anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours.

If one of these pains lasts more than 5 hours it is important for you to see your doctor immediately as this could be a sign of a gallbladder infection which requires immediately treatment. Other symptoms which require the immediate attention of your doctor include nausea or vomiting, chills or fever, a yellowish color of the skin or the eyes, or if you begin having clay-colored stool.

What is the Treatment for Gallstones?

Probably the most common treatment for gallstones is to remove the gallbladder.  This surgery is called a cholecystectomy.  Cholecystectomy surgery – usually performed as a laparoscopic procedure requiring a  one night hospital stay – is the most common adult surgery in the United States.  In more severe cases a more traditional open surgery is performed, requiring a three to five day hospital stay and a much longer recovery period at home.  In rare cases, where cholesterol stones are the only stones being produced and when the patient cannot tolerate surgery, drugs are administered which slowly dissolve the stones. This procedure can take many months and there can be side effects, such as increased cholesterol levels which make this a procedure of last resort.
How Can You Prevent Gallstones?
There is no way to guarantee that you will never develop gallstones.  However, eating a low-cholesterol, low-fat, high-fiber diet can certainly help. Losing weight can also reduce your chances of developing gallstones.

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