Gallstones may be small or large and remain in the liver without causing illness or symptoms. Some gallstones can irritate the gallbladder or become lodged in the hepatic, cystic, common bile or pancreatic ducts. Symptoms similar to other conditions, such as a heart attack and appendicitis, may be present with gallstones. Proper diagnosis and medical attention is necessary when symptoms occur.
Gallstone formation may occur when bile, a digestive liquid that helps dissolve fat, has too much cholesterol, bilirubin or a lack of bile salts. When the gallbladder does not empty properly, gallstone formation may increase. Women are at higher risk for gallstones due to excess estrogen that results in higher cholesterol in bile. Family history, obesity and certain medical conditions are linked to gallstones. A high-fat, low-fiber diet may also be a contributing factor.
Pain in the abdomen, under the ribs or radiating to the back, shoulder blades or under the right shoulder may be prominent with gallstones. Individuals may experience severe pain within a few hours of eating a high-fat meal. Other common symptoms include nausea, vomiting, abdominal bloating, intestinal gas, indigestion and jaundice. Flu-like symptoms, such as chills, sweating and fever may also occur with abdominal pain. Passing clay-colored stools can be indicative of gallstones.
Because gallstone symptoms mimic other serious conditions that result in abdominal pain, a proper diagnosis is necessary for appropriate treatment. Ultrasounds or other imaging procedures can help a physician to check gallbladder function and the bile ducts for obstructions, infection and ruptures. Blood tests may also be necessary to check for possible infection, jaundice or pancreatitis, according to Mayo Clinic.
Gallstones causing frequent symptoms may require surgical removal of the gallbladder. Non-surgical options are available for individuals who are not candidates for surgery due to particular medical conditions. Oral dissolution therapy is used to dissolve small cholesterol gallstones. Multiple treatment attempts may be necessary with this method. Contact dissolution therapy is an experimental procedure involving direct injection of a drug into the gallbladder. This procedure continues to be tested in patients with small gallstones.
Avoid crash diets, which may create gallstones due to increased cholesterol release from the the liver into bile. Minimize high fat foods and increase fiber intake and physical activity to reduce your risk for gallstones. Talk with your doctor about the use of oral birth control, hormone replacement therapy and cholesterol-lowering drugs since such medications have been shown to increase release of cholesterol into bile, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center.