Gallstones are a common and painful health problem. Unfortunately, many people live with this condition for a long time—sometimes months—before they seek treatment. Delaying treatment can lead to complications and even becoming seriously ill. Knowing the symptoms of gallstones is crucial, so you or a loved one can seek help right away if you suspect you have this condition…
What are gallstones?
Before discussing the signs and symptoms of gallstones, it’s important to know a little bit about what they are and how they form. Now, the formation of gallstones all goes back to the liver. One of the major functions of your liver? To collect and break down wastes from your bloodstream. These wastes are turned into a greenish, oily fluid called bile, which is collected in your gallbladder.
The gallbladder collects bile and then sends it through ducts into the intestines. From there, the bile is excreted in your feces, which gives bowel movements their dark brown color. Bile also is important in digestion, helping to emulsify, or mix, fats in the intestines so they can be absorbed and used in the body.
How do gallstones form?
Gallstones occur when certain substances that are present in bile form hard stones. In most cases, these stones are very small and easily pass through the bile ducts. However, when the stones are large enough to get stuck or damage the walls of these ducts, they can cause excruciating pain and even a health emergency.
What are the symptoms of gallstones?
Of course, there are different types of gallstones, and different types of gallstones have different causes, symptoms, and treatments…
One of the easiest signs of gallstones to recognize is pain.
How do gallstones cause pain?
Unfortunately, gallstones often have no symptoms when they are in the gallbladder. Instead, they often begin to cause symptoms when they move to the opening of the gallbladder and the bile ducts. Once in these areas of the liver, they can obstruct, or block, bile from leaving the liver. This leads to a back-up of bile as well as pain and potentially inflammation. So, pain is one of the telltale signs of gallstones.
Where is the pain located?
The pain won’t occur just anywhere, though. Instead, pain from gallstones is usually located in the upper right abdomen, often radiating to the shoulder or back. Sometimes, the pain may be in the center of the abdomen. Often, this pain worsens from eating fatty foods or drinking alcohol.
Gallstones or something else?
However, these locations are common pain points for plenty of other conditions. How can you tell if this pain is caused by gallbladder issues or something else?
Common indicators of gallstone pain include:
- Pain that is persistent and/or worsening
- Pain occurring hours after a fatty meal (not immediately after)
- Pain persisting after bowel movements and gas
- Pain persisting after movement
- Pain lingering even after taking over-the-counter pain-relieving medicines
When your pain fits these bullet points, it might be a good sign that something is wrong with the gallbladder.
Pain often isn’t the only sign.
Pain, however, is not the only symptom of these stones…
8. Pancreatitis & Fever
Gallstones can cause many, many problems, including pancreatitis and fever.
How do gallstones cause these symptoms?
The pancreas and liver are neighbors. So, their excrement ducts are close together, meaning a blockage in one can affect the other, leading to inflammation. Fever is a common symptom of pancreatitis.
What are the symptoms of pancreatitis?
- Fever and chills
- Increased heart rate
- Nausea and vomiting
- Pain in the abdominal area
- Abdominal pain that may spread to the back
- Abdominal swelling
Take fever seriously.
Fever can be a sign of serious infection, something not to be taken lightly. When paired with the next symptom, it’s especially important to seek medical attention as soon as possible…
It’s not unusual for liver problems to result in jaundice.
What is jaundice?
Jaundice is when the skin or whites of the eyes turn yellow.
A note about the formation of gallstones.
The second most common kind of gallstones are called pigment stones. These stones are made of bilirubin, a yellowish waste substance that the liver cleans from the bloodstream. They are more common in people with liver diseases that prevent bile from being efficiently excreted. In this case, bile can become concentrated and increase the risk of stones.
Pigment stones are also common in people who have certain blood disorders that increase the rate of red blood cell destruction. Because bilirubin is a waste product from red blood cell turnover, people with these diseases will have higher levels of the substance, thus an increased risk of stones.
How do gallstones cause jaundice?
Blocking of certain bile ducts increases bilirubin, which is yellowish in color. This increase can lead to the changes seen with jaundice.
The reason gallstones cause jaundice is also why they can cause this next symptom as well…
6. Changes in Bowel Movements
Gallstones may cause changes in stool color. So, those who notice that their bowel movements are a little off should pay attention to the color of their feces.
What will the changed stool look like?
People with gallstones may notice that their stool becomes:
- Clay colored
Why do gallstones cause stool to change color?
The reason is similar to why these stones can cause jaundice. Namely, the blocking of bile ducts leads to an increase in bile. This increase in turn can affect the color of stool.
Stool isn’t all that can change color.
It’s also possible that urine may change as well…
5. Change in Urine Color
Those who have gallstones may notice changes not just in their stool, but also in their urine. Specifically, these people may notice that their urine is a different color.
What will the changed urine look like?
People with gallstones may notice that their urine looks:
How do gallstones change urine color?
Gallstones can block bile ducts. When this event happens, the color of urine may change as bile builds up.
Expect more gastrointestinal discomfort.
Changes in stool and urine aren’t the only gastrointestinal problems this condition can cause…
4. Nausea, Vomiting or Indigestion
Nausea is a common symptom of not just gallstones, but all different kinds of gallbladder issues.
Gallstones or something else?
Lots of different issues can cause nausea. So, just what are the signs that nausea could be the result of gallstones? These signs might include:
- Recurrent nausea or vomiting
- Pain following a meal
- Nausea and/or vomiting paired with other gallstone symptoms
Still more gastrointestinal discomfort to come…
Of course, when paired with the next gastrointestinal issue, it’s also likely that gallstones are to blame…
While bloating can have many causes, it could be a sign of gallstones when paired with some of the previously listed symptoms, especially abdominal pain.
How long does this bloating last?
Bloating from this condition is common after meals, particularly if they are fatty. The subsequent bloating can last just a few minutes for some people. Unfortunately, others may suffer from bloating for up to an hour.
How do gallstones cause bloating?
There are a few ways that bloating from gallstones can occur.
- Simply blocking bile ducts can set off a chain reaction that leads to bloating.
- Another way is indirectly, as a symptom of pancreatitis is abdominal swelling. (Remember, gallstones can lead to pancreatitis).
Swelling or legitimate weight gain?
Now, not just bloating, but also legitimate weight gain is associated with gallstones…
2. Weight Gain or Sudden Weight Loss
Rapid weight loss and weight gain are often seen with patients who develop gallstones.
It all has to do with how gallstones form.
These stones form when there are excessive amounts of certain substances in bile. The most common kind of gallstones—4/5 of all stones—are made of cholesterol. Naturally, cholesterol stones are common in people who have high cholesterol levels. After all, having excessive cholesterol increases the chance that there will be a high enough concentration in bile for stones to form.
How exactly does weight loss translate into gallstone issues?
Weight loss isn’t necessarily caused by gallstones, but often occurs in those with gallstones. So, those who experience rapid weight loss and then notice other gallstone symptoms could benefit from seeing a doctor.
How does rapid weight loss result in gallstones?
Rapid weight loss pushes the body in uncomfortable and even harmful ways. When someone loses weight rapidly, the body works extra hard to metabolize fat. When this happens, the liver pumps out extra cholesterol into bile: a prime recipe for stones.
What kinds of weight loss put someone at risk for this condition?
Rapid weight-loss methods put people at risk for gallstones. These methods may include:
- Gastric bypass surgery
- Fad diets
Why is weight gain associated with gallstones?
Weight gain is also not caused by gallstones but rather associated with the condition. Why is that, though?
It all has to do with how gallstones are formed. Since overweight and obese individuals tend to have higher levels of cholesterol, they are at increased risk of developing cholesterol stones. So, those who are overweight or obese and notice the previously listed gallstone symptoms may benefit from speaking with their doctor.
Think gallstones are an issue?
If so, you might be wondering how are gallstones identified and treated, as well as what to expect when visiting the doctor…
1. Identifying & Treating Gallstones
What should those who think they may have gallstones expect when they see their doctor?
How are gallstones identified?
There are a few ways to identify gallstones.
If you suspect a gallstone, your doctor will first perform blood work. Many people with this health disorder will have increased white blood cells and high blood levels of certain liver enzymes.
There are also certain types of imaging that can be helpful in diagnosing gallstones. Ultrasound is generally considered the best modality, although a CT scan or MRI can often show gallstones.
How are gallstones treated?
There are several ways to treat gallstones, including non-surgical options.
ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangio-pancreatography)
A procedure, ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangio-pancreatography), can treat gallstones without the need for a major surgery.
In this procedure, the doctor will sedate the patient and then put a small tube with a camera down their throat and into the intestines. They can then look directly into the bile duct. Dye is injected into the bile duct and x-rays taken immediately to identify any blockage. Now, doctors can often remove smaller gallstones by using a small hook threaded through the tube during this procedure.
ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangio-pancreatography)
Alternately, doctors can perform an MRCP (magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography),which is similar to ERCP. However, MRCP uses MRI instead of x-ray for imaging. Notably, MRCP can identify, but not treat, this condition.
Medications are also an option. Ursodiol, or ursodeoxycholic acid, can decrease liver-produced cholesterol and even break down small cholesterol stones. This option may also help prevent gallstones for certain patients.
If gallstones cannot be removed through less invasive methods, intense surgery may be necessary. In laparoscopic gallbladder surgery, the doctor will remove all stones as well as the gallbladder. This ensures that stones will not form again in the future.
Don’t hesitate to see a doctor.
If you suspect that you have symptoms of gallstones, make an appointment with your doctor. They can initiate the testing that will allow you to get a diagnosis. Ultimately, getting prompt professional treatment is the only surefire way to make your pain and other uncomfortable symptoms go away.