Gallstones affect about 20% of the American population. Only about 3% ever become symptomatic, however. For those who do experience gallstone symptoms, treatment is essential. The pain and discomfort from gallstone disease (GD) can be excruciating. In fact, the pain is so intense that it prompts many to seek relief from whatever works, be it medication, surgery, natural remedies, or preventative measures.
In other words, while traditional medicine can be an effective solution to the problem, it isn’t the only one.
Treatment for Gallstones
When gallstones become painful, many people will start looking for remedies that will bring relief. Popular treatment options include the following…
1. Anti-inflammatory Drugs and Narcotic Pain Relievers
In most cases, the first level of care is pain relief. This method may be combined with another treatment or it may be the only treatment for milder cases.
Narcotics vs NSAID
Acute pain that causes distress may be treated with a narcotic pain reliever. These are available by prescription only and are intended solely for short term use due to their high addiction rate.
Anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) are available both over the counter (like ibuprofen) or by prescription (celecoxib/Celebrex).
Why anti-inflammatory drugs and narcotic pain relievers help fight gallstones
Anti-inflammatory drugs block certain enzymes that produce prostaglandin, a chemical in the body that helps facilitate inflammation, fever, and pain.
Narcotic pain relievers bind to the opioid receptors in the brain, affecting the central nervous system and peripheral nervous system. They block pain pathways. So, while the pain is still there, it doesn’t register with the brain. In other words, the patient does not feel the pain.
2. Ursodeoxycholic Acid (Ursodiol)
Ursodeoxycholic acid, or ursodiol (Actigall, Urso Forte, Urso 250), is a prescription medication that is used in the treatment of gallstones.
Conditions it’s used for
It often used to treat smaller cholesterol gallstones and primary biliary cirrhosis, a disease of the liver. It can also be used to prevent the formation of gallstones in obese patients who are rapidly losing weight.
The medication has some side effects that include:
- upset stomach
- hair loss
- back pain
Typically, these side effects subside after taking the medication regularly for a time.
Why ursodeoxycholic acid helps fight gallstones
It dissolves the stones while limiting the production of cholesterol. It does so by blocking the liver enzyme that produces it. This process also reduces the amount of cholesterol in the bile.
3. Chenodeoxycholic Acid
Chenodeoxycholic acid is a medication some doctors use to dissolve gallstones; it is made from bile.
The ideal patient
It works best for people who cannot have gallbladder surgery.
Who should avoid this treatment?
This medication should not be used by people who:
- Are pregnant
- Have pancreatitis related to gallstones
- Have a blockage in the digestive tract
- Have a bile obstruction
- Have cirrhosis or some other liver disease
Common side effects include mild stomach cramps or abnormal blood tests.
Why chenodeoxycholic acid helps fight gallstones
Chenodeoxycholic acid helps to dissolve gallstones. Specifically, it decreases cholesterol saturation in the bile.
4. Shockwave Therapy (ESWL)
Shockwave therapy, known as extracorporeal shockwave therapy lithotripsy (ESWL), is a non-invasive, non-surgical treatment for gallstones.
Why shockwave therapy helps fight gallstones
ESWL can be done without anesthesia on an outpatient basis. It disintegrates and fractures the gallstones using sound waves. These waves are strong enough to affect the stones but not so strong they harm the patient.
The ideal patient
The best candidates for this procedure have a normal functioning gallbladder and small stones. It is also a good option for patients who are unable to undergo gallbladder surgery.
The time frame
It may take several months for the stone or stones to dissolve completely, depending on the size of the stones.
5. ERCP Surgery
Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography, ERCP for short, is a procedure that removes gallstones from the bile duct but leaves the gallbladder in place. That means this procedure does not remove gallstones that are still in the gallbladder.
How ERCP works
- ERCP uses a tiny camera on a long, thin, flexible tube, called an endoscope, to pass through the patient’s mouth to the point where the bile duct empties into the small intestine.
- The bile duct opening is then widened with a heated wire or small cut.
- This cut allows the surgeon access to get the stones and remove them or allow them to bass into the intestine so they can be expelled.
- In some cases, it may be necessary for the surgeon to place a stent in the bile duct, making it easier for stones and bile to pass.
6. Gallbladder Surgery
Gallbladder surgery, called a cholecystectomy, is the most invasive of all gallbladder treatments.
It is done laparoscopically.
That means that the surgeon makes several incisions in the abdomen and removes the gallbladder. The surgeon does so with the aid of a tiny camera on a lighted scope, which they insert through one of the incisions.
How common is this procedure?
Each year there are about 700,000 cholecystectomies performed. This specialized gallbladder surgery is not without complications, though, which cost U.S. adults around $6.5 billion annually.
In about 5 to 10 out of 100 cholecystectomies in the U.S., the surgeon finds it necessary to switch to open surgery, which requires a somewhat larger incision. This switch could be due to unforeseen issues like bleeding, injury, scar tissue, and inflammation.
Why gallbladder surgery helps fight gallstones
A cholecystectomy removes the entire gallbladder, which means that the body is no longer able to store bile between meals. Once the surgery is complete, the bile flows from the production point, the liver, directly to the small intestine through the common bile duct.
This usually has little or no impact on a patient’s digestion.
7. Milk Thistle
Silybum marianum, or milk thistle, is a powerful flavonolignan that has been used for centuries to treat gallbladder and liver disorders. The flavonolignans known as silymarin have long been studied for their effectiveness in treating certain diseases. Why are they so effective? Some believe it’s due to their diverse spectrum of bioactivities.
Milk thistle is available as a pill, over the counter. However, anyone thinking about using milk thistle for gallstones should first talk to their doctor, particularly if they are diabetic.
Why milk thistle helps fight gallstones
There is little scientific evidence to support the claim that milk thistle is a good treatment for gallbladder disease. That is why medicinal use of the supplements does not have FDA approval.
However, it has been used for centuries and many people tout its effectiveness even today. Advocates say it works by decreasing cholesterol in the body, so that cholesterol gallstones are not able to form.
8. Herba Lysimachiae
Jin Qian Cao (Herba Lysimachiae) is a class of herb that is incredibly popular in Chinese medicine for a number of conditions.
Which particular herbs are popular?
Two of the most popular herbs in this class that are used for treating gallstones are Lysimachia christinae and Desmodium styracifolium. Sometimes they are combined with other herbs like dandelion root for maximum effect.
What the science says
The supplement does not have FDA approval and more research needs to be done in order to solidify claims of efficacy.
Why Herba Lysimachiae helps fight gallstones
Advocates say Herba Lysimachiae actually dissolves the gallstones, specifically cholesterol gallstones. There have been clinical trials that have shown the herb was effective in treating mice with gallstones. That being said, there is still much research to be completed.
9. Dandelion Root
Dandelions are considered weeds in many communities. Just because they’re weeds doesn’t mean they’re useless, though. In fact, they are incredibly useful plants, particularly from a medical standpoint.
What part of the plant is edible?
The leaves are edible, and the root can be used to make a great-liver cleansing, gallstone-dissolving tea. Its herbs can be steamed and eaten or taken as a tincture or tea. The roots are slightly bitter, with a taste that is reminiscent of black licorice.
Why dandelion root helps fight gallstones
Dandelion contains the substance taraxacin, which may stimulate bile production. When the body produces more bile, the concentration decreases as well. This increase in volume has a good chance of flushing out a stone. It may also lower cholesterol, thus potentially preventing gallstones, too.
Dandelion root is not only considered to be a blood and liver purifier, but also a powerful anti-inflammatory. That means it may help relieve pain associated with these stones.
Turmeric has long been a staple of Ayurveda as well as Chinese medicine. It has been used for centuries to lose weight, reduce inflammation, relieve pain, and more. In short, it is a multipurpose supplement with therapeutic properties that help a number of medical conditions, including gallstones.
What makes turmeric so potent?
Curcumin is the primary chemical in turmeric it is often referred to by that name. It is a powerful anti-inflammatory that also reduces pain. The Arthritis Foundation recognizes curcumin as a “potent anti-inflammatory” and many doctors are not advising their patients to take the supplement for a variety of ailments.
What the science says
This is one natural supplement with some impressive scientific backing to support its claims. A 2016 report reviewed several randomized controlled trials on curcumin. The findings were pretty consistent across the board in that 1,000 mg per day of curcumin resulted in a reduction of inflammation and pain from osteoarthritis as well as any NSAID on the market today. Other studies tout its effectiveness for decreasing gallbladder pain and otherwise aiding with gallstone problems.
Another study showed turmeric’s effectiveness for treating a number of health problems including cancer, diabetes, skin diseases, and gallbladder problems. It decreases pain, stiffness, and inflammation for conditions like arthritis and decreases pain post-operation.
Why turmeric helps fight gallstones
There are two ways that turmeric helps fight gallstones. First, it reduces the inflammation by blocking certain inflammatory enzymes and cytokines. This in turn provides pain relief.
Second, it stimulates better bile flow which can help reduce the risk of developing gallstones. It may even soften the gallstones so that they are easier to pass. There is some evidence that suggests curcumin itself may also help with reducing cholesterol in the blood and helping it pass through the system more efficiently.
11. Dietary Changes
Dietary changes are usually one of the first courses of treatment for people suffering from gallbladder disease. Better yet, this behavior also serves to prevent them from happening again. These dietary changes could mean eliminating certain foods from the diet, adding certain foods, or changing eating patterns completely.
What the dietary changes look like
There are certain foods that tend to increase gallbladder pain and dietary changes will address that. It usually focuses on decreasing fat, cholesterol, and sugar while increasing certain whole grains, fresh vegetables, and lean meats.
At least one study also found that vegetable protein consumption is linked to a lowered risk of gallbladder disease and gallstones in postmenopausal women.
How any weight loss should occur
It is also important to lose weight at a reasonable rate, as losing weight too fast can cause gallstones to form. Research suggests that consuming between 1,200 and 1,500 calories a day allows for a slower weight loss that is much less likely to cause gallstones.
Why dietary changes help fight gallstones
Dietary changes to treat or prevent gallstones work twofold.
- Reduce weight and decrease obesity
- Eliminate foods that may be causing or exacerbating gallbladder disease, such as increased cholesterol
By making adjustments to diet, patients may find that their pain and discomfort have decreased or been eliminated completely.
Foods to avoid
Foods that may irritate the gallbladder—aka, foods to avoid—are:
12. Other Lifestyle Changes
Aside from dietary changes, there are other lifestyle changes that can improve gallbladder disease. These changes include:
- Stop smoking
- Drink only in moderation
- Exercise regularly
- Get good-quality sleep each night
Why lifestyle changes help fight gallstones
These changes help get the body into better shape, reduce weight, stabilize insulin levels, normalize blood sugar, and boost immunity. There isn’t one that is more important than another; they are all vital to good health.
Gallstones and many of the conditions that contribute to gallstones are typically lifestyle related. That means making the necessary adjustments to improve lifestyle behaviors can reduce symptoms, prevent occurrences, and even reverse the condition.
13. Prevention: The Best Cure of Them All
Prevention is a powerful weapon when it comes to fighting gallstones and other chronic conditions. While certain risk factors—like ethnicity, age, and gender—can’t be changed, there are plenty of others that can. And those positive changes can reduce the risk in areas that can’t be changed.
These are the keys to gallstone prevention:
- Healthy, fresh, balanced diet that includes whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, and lean meats
- Some plant protein included in the diet at least twice a week
- Limit or omit processed foods
- Limit or omit processed sugar in food and as a sweetener
- Reduce intake of fatty foods
- Exercise regularly
- Get good quality sleep
- If overweight or obese, lost weight slowly
- Stop smoking
- Drink in moderation
It is important that an individual is mindful of what they put in their body. While this switch may be difficult at first, making the transition somewhat gradual can help.
How prevention can help fight gallstones
Removing the elements that create or exacerbate the situation is an excellent way to prevent disease. That is exactly what happens when preventative measures are taken to fight gallstones. Most of these work in more than one area. For instance, changing diet patterns will automatically encourage weight loss.
Don’t give up!
While this list may at first appear daunting, experts recommend taking it one step at a time, making small, gradual changes. The dietary changes alone should be carried out over a few weeks at least, especially for those whose changes will be the most significant.
As the saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” By taking steps to prevent gallstones, there likely won’t be a need for the cures later on.
Natural treatments, medication, surgery, and non-invasive treatments all work for different individuals in different ways. A patient may have to try several remedies before finding the one (or ones) that works. It is important to remember though that while many of the treatments may reduce gallbladder symptoms and even infection, the underlying cause may have to be addressed separately.
Knowledge is key to treatment
Fortunately, gallbladder disease and gallstones are usually very treatable conditions. The more people know about their health conditions, the better equipped they are to make informed decisions regarding their treatments.