Are Gallstones Dangerous?

Published
October 17, 2022
By
William Hanner D.O.

Abdominal pain? Digestive discomfort? Nausea? If you are experiencing symptoms like these, you may be suffering from gallstones. These crystallized stones may seem tiny, but they can cause big problems for your body if you ignore them too long.

How do you know if you have gallstones, and if so, how serious the issue is? These facts will help you learn more about your level of risk, what to do if you have symptoms, and what is the best treatment plan for your body.

How Gallstones are Formed

A small organ located in your abdomen near your liver, the gallbladder plays an important role in your gastrointestinal tract. When your gallbladder is functioning properly, it allows digestive bile to travel from the liver to your small intestine. On the way, this bile helps digest the fatty foods we eat, making use of the vitamins and other nutrients in them.

So, how does a person develop gallstones? 

Too much cholesterol

When your body has too much cholesterol, and not enough bile salts, what you eat will not completely break down as it should. Instead, the cholesterol crystallizes into what are known as gallstones. They can be as small as grains of sand, or grow as large as a golf ball.

Too much bilirubin

This substance, produced in your liver, breaks down red blood cells and is vital to keeping your body running well. If your liver produces too much of it, however, it helps gallstones to form.

Faulty gallbladder functioning

If your gallbladder is not completely emptying itself, too much bile can end up lingering in it, leading to the formation of gallstones.

Who is Most at Risk of Developing Gallstones?

Are you at high risk for gallstones? Here are some of the most common risk factors that signal you should be staying aware of your gallbladder’s ongoing health:

History of gallstones

If you have had gallstones in the past, it is likely that you will have them again. If family members frequently get gallstones, your genetics may make it likely that you will also get them.

Unbalanced diet

A diet consisting of fatty foods, high cholesterol foods, and insufficient fiber increase the chances that you will develop gallstones. These dietary habits also have a tendency to cause weight gain—and being overweight or obese is also a risk factor for gallstones.

If you are trying to drop some pounds to improve your health, be sure to do so in a careful, health-conscious manner, because if your weight loss is too quick, gallbladder issues could still arise. Choose a slow, steady weight loss plan under the advice of a physician.

Age, gender and ethnic background

Gallstones are more likely to be found in females, especially those who are age 40 and up. They are also more common in those of Native American, Hispanic or Mexican descent.

Pregnancy and estrogen levels

Pregnant women are more likely to develop gallstones, and there may be a hormonal component to this tendency. Estrogen-related medications, such as oral contraceptives and hormone therapy drugs, are also associated with an increased risk of gallstone formation.

Lack of exercise

As with many, many other conditions, the development of gallstones is affected by a lack of regular movement. Being sedentary and failing to get sufficient exercise can increase the risk of developing these stones, so aim for a healthy, moderate exercise plan of 150 minutes or more per week.

Chronic illnesses

Diabetes and certain blood disorders, including leukemia and sickle cell anemia, can increase your chances of developing gallstones. Liver disease can also lead to a greater likelihood of having gallstones, as can conditions such as Crohn’s disease or inflammatory bowel disease.. If you have any of these conditions, do your best to eat well, get plenty of exercise, and stay in touch with your doctor if gallstone or gallbladder symptoms arise.

How Serious are Gallstones?

Wondering whether gallstones are dangerous? Maybe you are wondering if their size matters, or if people can even die from them. 

First of all, it is vital to understand that these crystallized clusters can block or impede the flow of bile from your liver, and cause a lot of problems. Problems can happen whether you have one gallstone or several—and even a smallish one can be troublesome if it gets trapped in the bile duct.

The complications that arise from gallstones are what can be most dangerous, which is why it is wise to be aware of the signs you may have gallstones, and to see a doctor for assessment if you are concerned about having gallstones.

What are the Signs of Gallstones?

Common symptoms of gallstones you should be aware of and bring to the attention of your physician include:

Pain

Abdominal pain is one of the most common symptoms of having gallstones, especially if the pain is sudden and intense. The pain may be located in your upper right abdomen, or in the center of your abdomen, below the breastbone.

You may also experience back pain, which usually manifests in-between the shoulder blades, or pain in and around your right shoulder.

Pain related to gallstones can be short-lived, lasting several minutes, or up to a few hours.

Unsettled stomach

Both nausea and vomiting are common with gallbladder issues, particularly gallstones. This is due to the fact that the stones can block the bile ducts between the liver, gallbladder and the small intestine. 

Jaundice

Since gallstones can block bile from passing through from the liver, symptoms of too much bile may occur—in the form of unusual, abnormal yellowing of the skin and eyes.

What To Do If You Have Gallstones

If you suspect you may have gallstones, it is important to see a doctor to be properly assessed and determine the best form of relief for your medical situation. 

When to see a doctor right away

If your pain feels intense enough that you can’t comfortably sit down and feel relaxed, see a doctor immediately, as this can be a sign that the bile duct is completely blocked or that your gallbladder is seriously inflamed.

Other signs that require urgent medical attention include symptoms of jaundice, such as yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes, and/or a high fever with chills.

If you are experiencing any of these serious symptoms, a trip to urgent care or the ER may be the wisest course.

Will you need surgery to treat a gallstone?

Many patients we see tell us they were initially reluctant to seek care for their gallstones out of a fear of surgery or other worries. The fact is that your treatment plan will depend on many factors that relate to your personal medical needs. Gallstones do not always need surgical care, but sometimes they do—and a skilled, caring physician (like Dr. Hanner!) can help you evaluate your personal situation and make an informed decision.

Remember that gallstones and gallbladder issues are best handled with your doctor’s care. If gallstones are left untreated, several complications can occur:

  • Inflammation of the gallbladder — Also known as acute cholecystitis, an inflamed gallbladder happens when the bile duct is totally blocked by a gallstone. Jaundice, high fever, great pain and infection are common as a result, and these can become life-threatening if not addressed.
  • Infection of the bile ducts — Acute cholangitis occurs when the gallstone moves from the gallbladder into the bile duct and gets stuck. The blocked flow of bile can lead to infection. This is treated with both antibiotics and surgery to remove th stone.
  • Gallbladder abscess — If ongoing infections and inflammation are not effectively treated, an abscess can form in the gallbladder. If the gallbladder tears, the infection and inflammation can spread into the abdomen, leading to peritonitis, which can be life-threatening.

Other complications can arise too. The safest approach to addressing any abdominal issues you are having is to visit your primary care physician or a gastrointestinal doctor to find out what is causing your symptoms. If you have gallstones, your doctor can help you determine what approach to take, whether it is mindful watching and waiting, antibiotics, surgery, and/or better eating and exercise habits to prevent additional gallstones from forming or growing larger.

Get Relief and Peace of Mind with Gallbladder Care from Dr. Hanner

There’s no reason to suffer with gallbladder or gallstone symptoms. With caring, personalized guidance and healthcare from the compassionate team at our office, you can enjoy life more, feel healthier, and address your gallbladder concerns with confidence. 

Get the peace of mind you deserve about your health. Reach out to schedule a consultation today.

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