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Could I have gallstones?

Gallstones are small stones that can develop in your Gallbladder. Many people may have gallstones and not even realise. Occasionally, gallstones can cause problems like abdominal pain, inflammation or infection of the gallbladder. This can be treated with antibiotics but will often need removal of the gallbladder to prevent it from happening again.

What are gallstones exactly?

Gallstones are small hard deposits that form inside the gallbladder due to an altered makeup of bile salts. They are usually crystallised cholesterol and are as small as a grain of sand or as big as a golf ball.

Your gallbladder is a little storage sac which sits beneath your liver in the right side of your abdomen. Its job is to store bile, a liquid made by your body to help break down fats that you eat. When you eat, the gallbladder contracts to empty the bile into the gastrointestinal tract for digestion.

How do I know I have them?

Sometimes a gallstone can leave the gallbladder and go into a bile duct, if it gets stuck in a duct and causes a blockage, you may experience many symptoms such as:

  • Pain in the right upper part of your abdomen
  • Pain in your upper back.
  • Pain after eating
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • If there is an associated infection, you may also feel feverish
  • You can also occasionally develop jaundice – where the skin turns a yellow colour

Gallbladder pain often happens after a heavy meal because the gallbladder is trying to empty itself of bile but find the exit is blocked. Pain usually subsides when the duct is no longer blocked. If this persists for more than a few hours, complications like infection can happen and it’s a good idea to get checked out by a medical professional right away.

Is there a test for gallstones?

An ultrasound scan is a quick and easy way to identify whether you have gallstones and can also be used to identify complications like obstruction or infection. This can be of your whole abdomen or just focused on the gallbladder to provide you with a quick and easy answer.

Blood tests can also help to detect evidence of inflammation or infection as well as monitor the function of your liver.

Am I at risk of developing gallstones?

You are more likely to develop gallstones as you get older, particularly over the age of 40

You are also more likely to get gallstones if you:

  • Are overweight
  • Female (twice more likely than men)
  • High cholesterol levels
  • Have a family history of gallstones
  • Lost weight rapidly e.g. because of surgery
  • Don’t eat much fibre
  • Have chronic illnesses like diabetes or Crohn’s disease
  • Take certain medication including HRT or the pill (oral contraceptive)

What should I do next?

If gallstones aren’t giving you any symptoms, your doctor will likely tell you to leave them alone. But if you do start to get symptoms you will be referred for investigations and treatment.

At Harley Street Ultrasound, we can reassure you and provide an ultrasound scan to identify whether you have gallstones and if there are any associated complications.

Can it be treated?

Surgery:

If you’re experiencing symptoms, your doctor will likely suggest an operation to remove the gallbladder. Luckily, this organ is not essential and once it is removed, bile can flow directly from the bladder into the intestine to continue helping with digestion. Where this is not possible, your surgeon may suggest a test called an ERCP, where a tube is used to help remove the gallstones but does not prevent them from happening.

Medication:

Symptoms can also be managed with over the counter medication like paracetamol or ibuprofen should you need them and you can take them – you can always discuss this with your doctor or a pharmacist.

Diet:

As cholesterol appears to play a role in forming gallstones, it is advised to avoid eating too many foods with a high saturated fat content.

Dr Ayman Mahfouz

Dr Ayman Mahfouz

Dr Mahfouz is a Consultant Radiologist at University College of London Hospital (UCLH). Qualified from Barts and the Royal London School of Medicine in 2009. After completing his junior doctor training at Imperial College Healthcare NHS trust, Dr Mahfouz attained his Fellowship at the Royal College of Radiologists whilst training in the East Midlands Deanery.