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Gallstones and their complications are the most common reason for ER visits and hospitalizations in the U.S.

The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ under the liver. The liver makes a fluid called bile which is designed to digest fat. Bile is stored in the gallbladder and released through the bile duct into the small intestines to help digest food.

Gallstones are hardened deposits of bile that form in the gallbladder. 80% of gallstones are made of cholesterol from food. They occur when there is an imbalance between the substances that make up bile.

Gallstones form when your bile contains too much cholesterol, waste products, or bilirubin.  Substances in the bile may cause it to harden into stones.

Risk factors include:

  • being over age 40
  • being female
  • being overweight
  • being sedentary
  • being pregnant or a history of multiple pregnancies
  • having family history
  • being Native American or Mexican American
  • eating a diet high in fat and cholesterol
  • eating a low fiber diet
  • having diabetes
  • having blood disorders like sickle cell anemia and leukemia
  • taking certain hormones such as hormone therapy or oral contraceptives
  • rapid weight cycling

Most gallstones cause no symptoms and are discovered incidentally during an imaging test for other conditions.  Once symptoms occur, they are usually related to a blockage of the bile duct that can last minutes to hours. If it doesn’t subside it is likely acute cholecystitis, inflammation of the gallbladder caused by gallstones blocking the bile duct.

Symptoms include:

  • sudden and rapidly painful upper right part of the abdomen or the middle of the abdomen
  • pain between the shoulder blades
  • pain in the right shoulder
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • jaundice
  • severe pain, high fever, and chills- cholecystitis

Gallstones are usually diagnosed with an ultrasound. This imaging test uses sound waves to create detailed images of the gallbladder and any gallstones that may be present. Other tests, such as a CT scan or MRI, may also be used to diagnose gallstones. Blood work may also be done to check for signs of infection or inflammation.

Treatment of gallstones depends on the size and number of stones, as well as the symptoms they are causing. If the stones are small and not causing any symptoms, they may be observed without treatment. People who have symptoms usually need surgery.

If the diagnosis is acute cholecystitis the treatment is laparoscopic cholecystectomy, surgical removal of the gallbladder.

When you or a loved one has GI symptoms, contact Gastroenterology Associates of Brooklyn to schedule a consultation and get the right diagnose and all your treatment options.