- Diseases, Disorders & Conditions
Effective Treatments for Gallstones
Gallstones are a relatively common medical complaint especially for people over the age of forty. They are caused by a buildup of substances in the gallbladder and can cause some pain and discomfort if left untreated. In this article we'll explore what causes gallstones in the first place and find out about the treatment options that are available. We'll explore:
- What causes gallstones?
- How common are gallstones?
- What treatments are available for gallstones?
What causes gallstones?
Bile is a substance naturally produced by the liver to aid digestion. Gallstones are the result of some of the substances in the bile forming together into clumps. These insoluble chemicals can include calcium, cholesterol, bilirubin and others.
These clumps, or gallstones, typically form in the gallbladder itself, just below the liver, although they can also form in the bile duct. The medical name for stones located in the gallbladder is 'cholecystolithiasis' whereas the term for stones in the bile duct is 'choledocholithiasis'.
How common are gallstones?
After the age of forty, gallstones become more common with about a fifth of women and a tenth of men having the condition. Around 80% of people with gallstones may not even be aware that they have the condition as they will not feel any pain or have any other symptoms.
Fortunately, if gallstones do not cause discomfort, they do not need to be treated as they are otherwise harmless and will probably go away by themselves. If someone with gallstones does start to experience pain then they should see a doctor as the gallstones may need to be treated to avoid further complications.
What treatments are available for gallstones?
There are several techniques that can be used to treat gallstones:
- Wait and see if the gallstones go away by themselves
- Using a bile salt to dissolve the stones
- Shock-wave therapy to dissolve the stones
- Contact dissolution surgery
- Removal of the gallbladder
Wait and see if the gallstones go away by themselves
Although having gallstones can be painful, they will often dissolve and go away by themselves in 30%-50% of cases. In most of these cases, the patient will not have a recurrence, so no further treatment is needed. If it is a patient's first incident of gallstones, many doctors will choose not to do anything other than prescribe pain medication, preferring to see if the issue resolves itself.
Using a bile salt to dissolve the stones
Patients can take bile salt medications, typically the drug Actigall (ursodiol). In some cases, gallstones could take months or years to dissolve completely and recurrence of gallstones is common if the patient stops taking the drug.
Shock-wave therapy to dissolve the stones
A specialist can use dedicated equipment that produces sound-waves to break down and dissolve the gallstones.
Contact dissolution surgery
A surgeon will insert a tube through the abdomen, into the gallbladder. They can then inject a drug to dissolve the gallstones directly through the tube. This can break gallstones down quickly.
Gallstones and their treatment
Removal of the gallbladder
If a person's gallstone problem is persistent and painful, or their gallstones cause other complications, a doctor may recommend surgery to remove the gallbladder. This is an extremely common procedure and although a person may need to make changes to their diet following the surgery, they can lead a full and healthy life without a gallbladder.
What is your preferred treatment for dealing with gallstones?
Gallstones and the symptoms that they cause are very common. Fortunately, there are a number of well-developed techniques for dealing with them. If you suspect you may be suffering from gallstones, your doctor will be able to work with you to help you decide on the most effective treatment.