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Gallbladder Disease: Symptoms and Causes of Gallstones

Updated on July 18, 2016
Gallstones as seen on an X-ray
Gallstones as seen on an X-ray | Source

Gallbladder disease is no fun, but it is more common than most people realize. There are approximately 500,000 to 700,000 gallbladder removals per year. The disease is more prevalent in women than in men and is most commonly found among the young and underprivileged.

The stones can actually be asymptomatic, which is called “silent gallstones.” Many people go for years without any sign that they are suffering from the disease. In fact, 70 to 80 percent of sufferers will never know they have gallstones.

Interestingly, a few hundred years ago, gallstones were actually rare. Obesity was also less common. Gallstones are not as common in developing countries. Amazingly, between 1923 and 1955 no gallstones were found in any of the 4,395 autopsies reviewed from Ghana, a country located in West Africa.

Most of the gallstones that are found in developing nations are found in the wealthiest of the population, the people most likely to be obese and consuming a more western style diet.

Gallstones in a Recently Removed Gallbladder


Symptoms of Gallstones

There are quite a few different symptoms of gallstones:

  • Pain in the upper right portion of the abdomen that begins suddenly and increases in severity very quickly
  • Pain just under the sternum (breastbone) that begins suddenly and increases in severity very quickly
  • Back pain between the shoulder blades
  • Pain in the right shoulder
  • Pain so intense that you are unable to find a comfortable position, and are unable to sit still
  • Nausea and / or vomiting
  • Sweating
  • High fever with chills

Biliary Colic

The pain is called biliary colic and is caused by a gallstone blocking the hepatic duct or the common bile duct. When this happens the bile accumulates causing the ducts and the gallbladder to expand.

The pain will vary widely among individuals. For example, whenever I suffered a gallbladder attack (as they are called), I felt a sharp, excruciating pain just below my sternum (breastbone) that wrapped around my midsection like a band. It’s difficult to describe exactly what the pain felt like, but I would say it felt like someone was blowing up a balloon inside my ribcage to the point of rupture.

My very first attack began after eating a piece of chocolate cake. It began suddenly and gradually intensified to the point that I was literally writhing in pain. I couldn’t sit still. It was so bad I went to the emergency room. But the pain stopped just as quickly as it had started, lasting about 30 minutes.

Attacks can last anywhere from 15 minutes to 24 hours, but most last about one to five hours. The pain can make it difficult to breathe, and is usually continuous until the attack ends (although intensity may wax and wane). It will usually start shortly after a meal (especially after a fatty meal) or at night while sleeping.

Ultrasound Showing a Large Gallstone

The white arrow points to the large gallstone.
The white arrow points to the large gallstone. | Source

Risk Factors for Gallbladder Disease

There are quite a few risk factors that increase the risk of someone suffering with gallstones. Some of the most common risk factors include:

  • Being overweight
  • Age (being over the age of 40)
  • Estrogen intake and use of birth control pills
  • Being female (women are at higher risk after having a child)
  • Family history of gallbladder disease
  • Diets high in saturated fat
  • Thyroid disease
  • Diets high in refined foods and sugars
  • Diabetes
  • Constipation
  • Diets low in fiber
  • Having high triglycerides or LDL cholesterol
  • Decreased levels of HDL cholesterol

This is by no means an exhaustive list. It is interesting to note that several of the major risk factors related to the diet consumed. Our Western diet has made many diseases and illnesses much more commonplace than they should be.


The Western Diet and Gallbladder Disease

The American diet, also called the Western diet, is riddled with fat and refined carbohydrates. Most Americans eat junk foods, filled with sugar, and greasy potato chips. They consume very few vegetables and whole grains. Let’s not forget about the enormous amount of soda, laden with sugar, consumed on a daily basis.

Gallstones are actually a sign of metabolic syndrome, a term used to describe a combination of medical problems that increase the risk of developing diabetes and cardiovascular disease. All of the following diseases are considered to be a part of metabolic syndrome:

  • Hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol)
  • Decreased HDL cholesterol
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Hypertriglyceridemia (high triglycerides)
  • Obesity, especially central or visceral obesity (fat concentrated in the stomach area)
  • Impaired glucose tolerance
  • Insulin resistance
  • Diabetes
  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease

Most gallstones are made of cholesterol. Our liver secretes cholesterol as a bile salt. Normally the bile salts and acids in the gallbladder are enough to breakdown the cholesterol. Metabolic syndrome makes it difficult for the body to metabolize fats, and this affects the bile salts and acids in the gallbladder, which allows the cholesterol to solidify forming gallstones.

© Copyright 2012 - 2015 by Melissa "Daughter of Maat" Flagg ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


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    • Daughter Of Maat profile imageAUTHOR

      Melissa Flagg COA OSC 

      6 years ago from Rural Central Florida

      @RichieMogwai Thank you, I'm glad you found this hub useful. After my experience and everything I've learned since then, I wanted to share it with as many people as possible. Gotta get the word out!!

    • RichieMogwai profile image

      Richie Mogwai 

      6 years ago from Vancouver

      Thank you very much for sharing this hub. I wanted to find out what gallstones are all about, so I'm very grateful for the information. In particular, the information about the symptoms and the fact that this problem is only prevalent in modern, Western societies were very helpful.


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