Hidden away in a box of mementos, I have a little bag with a biohazard label on it. Inside is a spiky greenish-gray ball the size of a small marble. It is a gallstone, and it was removed along with my gallbladder when I was twenty years old. If you have ever been diagnosed with gallstones, you know that they can be extremely painful. Often, if you have a diseased gallbladder, the only course of action that will stop the painful gallstones from forming is to remove the gallbladder completely.
What are gallstones?
Gallstones are hard deposits that form in the gallbladder, more commonly in Native Americans and Hispanics. Women are more prone to gallstones than men, and your risk increases with age and certain other factors. As a Native American woman with a family history of gallstones, I was always at high risk.
Gallstones can be tiny or they can grow as large as a golf ball. They don’t always cause any symptoms, but when a gallstone lodges in ducts leading away from the gallbladder, they can cause horrible pain.
What are the symptoms?
The night I discovered I had gallstones, I woke in the middle of the night with extreme pain in the upper right quadrant of my abdomen. It was a cramping pain that was easily at least a nine on the pain scale of one to ten. This severe, cramping pain is often seen in gallstone attacks. The pain may also present in the center of the abdomen or even in the back around the shoulder blades. Other symptoms may include nausea and vomiting, fever and jaundice. You should see a doctor right away if you have these symptoms.
How are gallstones diagnosed?
Gallstones may be seen on an X-ray, or they may be diagnosed with an ultrasound. Some people’s gallstones are spotted during a diagnostic test for something else, and they are treated without ever having any symptoms at all. Others, like me, find out they have gallstones when they visit an emergency room in severe pain.
How are gallstones treated?
Some people attempt to treat their gallstones through dietary changes while others require surgical intervention. My gallbladder was full of stones and my surgeon recommended removing it through a laparoscopic procedure as soon as possible. I had the surgery less than 48 hours after being diagnosed, and have been symptom free ever since.
Gallbladder surgery, when done as a laparoscopic procedure, requires only tiny incisions. A scope and small tools are inserted into the abdominal cavity through four incisions roughly a centimeter in length, and the gallbladder is removed through the navel. Not every patient is a candidate for laparoscopic gallbladder removal, though. Some surgeries must be performed through a single, larger incision.
According to the Mayo Clinic, no alternative therapies have been proven to dissolve existing gallstones. However, a high fiber diet and adequate levels of vitamins C, E and calcium may help to prevent new gallstones from forming. If you are at high risk for gallstones, you may want to talk to your doctor about trying these preventive therapies.
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