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Treatment For Gallstones: Surgery and Alternatives

Updated on July 18, 2016
Gallstones | Source

Surgery to remove the gallbladder is the most common treatment for patients who suffer with the pain and other symptoms resulting from gallstones.

However, there are other options. These options are dependent on the severity of the disease and size of the gallstones, but there are alternatives nonetheless.

Surgery for Gallstones

The most common treatment for gallstones is surgical removal of the gallbladder itself, which is called cholecystectomy. This procedure can be done laparoscopically, but is only performed on patients with active symptoms.

Surgery does have side effects. Approximately 10 to 15 percent of patients who undergo the procedure will suffer from postcholecystectomy syndrome which can be worse than the gallbladder attacks themselves. Symptoms of postcholecystectomy syndrome include:

  • Persistent pain in the upper-right abdomen
  • Gastrointestinal distress
  • Chronic diarrhea (there is a whopping 10 percent chance of this side effect with surgery)

Unfortunately, surgery is usually the first treatment doctors recommend for symptomatic patients. Most doctors won't even tell their patients there are other options when, in fact, there are.

Alternative Medical Treatments for Gallstones

Ursodeoxycholic Acid

Ursodiol, or ursodeoxycholic acid, is a drug that is typically used for cholestatic liver diseases. But it can be also used to dissolve cholesterol gallstones.

Ursodeoxycholic acid is a secondary bile acid that is a by-product of the metabolism of the primary bile acids (which are made from cholesterol) by bacteria in the intestinal tract.

The drug is typically marketed under several different brand names including:

  • Urso
  • Ursodiol
  • Urso Forte
  • Deursil
  • Actigall

The drug works by regulating cholesterol. Specifically, it regulates the rate at which the intestines absorb it, and it also breaks up the micelles, or tiny packages, that contain cholesterol.

Some patients need to take Ursodiol for up to two years for the stones to dissolve. Recurrence is not uncommon once the medication is discontinued.

Example of ERCP

Duodenoscopy image of two pigment stones extracted from common bile duct
Duodenoscopy image of two pigment stones extracted from common bile duct | Source

Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography (ECRP)

This technique is typically used to locate stones and tumors as well as locate any narrowing of the bile ducts.

ERCP uses two diagnostic testing procedures, endoscopy and fluoroscopy, to diagnose and treat problems in the biliary and pancreatic ductwork.

The procedure involves using an endoscope to view the stomach and duodenum and inject dye into both the pancreas and biliary tree making them visible on an x-ray.


Passed kidney stone fragments that were treated with lithotripsy.
Passed kidney stone fragments that were treated with lithotripsy. | Source

Extracorporeal Shock Wave Lithotripsy

Typically referred to as “lithotripsy,” this procedure is most commonly used on stones found in the kidneys, but it can also be used to treat stones found in the liver and gallbladder.

It uses ultrasonic waves to break up the stones into tiny fragments. The method used is very similar to the phacoemulsification used during cataract surgery; however, in lithotripsy the fragments are not removed.Instead, they are left to be safely excreted in the feces.

Unfortunately, this procedure is only effective when there are only a few small stones in the gallbladder. It cannot be used on gallbladder disease that is advanced, or when the gallbladder is inflammed.

Prevention and Other Alternative Treatments for Gallbladder Disease

Of course the best treatment is prevention, and gallbladder disease can be prevented. Knowing what causes gallbladder disease can go along way in helping to prevent it.

Recent research suggests that gallstones are actually a symptom of metabolic syndrome, which has become an epidemic in our society.

Metabolic Syndrome

Metabolic syndrome is caused by the common Western diet that includes junk food, soda, fast foods, sugary desserts, processed foods, and other refined carbohydrates.

The antidote to this epidemic is a diet that is completely free of refined carbohydrates, processed foods, and sucrose. It should contain high amounts of fiber and more vegetable than animal products.

Eating fiber increases the amount of deoxycholic acid in the intestines. Like ursodeoxycholic acid, deoxycholic acid is a secondary bile acid that is the result of the metabolic processes of bacteria in the intestines.

Deoxycholic acid, like all bile acids, is responsible for the break-down of fats so that the intestines can more easily absorb them. This prevents the buildup of cholesterol, in turn preventing gallstones.

Ultimately, preventing metabolic syndrome helps to prevent not only gallstones and gallbladder disease, but diabetes and heart disease as well.

Vitamin C

Another, often overlooked, method of prevention (and my favorite cure for just about everything) is vitamin C.

Vitamin C can be used to treat everything from cancer to allergies and everything in between. It is quite versatile and is required in numerous chemical reactions in the body.

For example, it is actually a necessity for the proper metabolism of cholesterol. It is required for the body to properly breakdown cholesterol into bile acids, which directly correlates it with gallstones.

Although there have been no studies specifically on this theory, it is possible that higher doses of vitamin C could help dissolve and prevent gallstones.

Foods to Avoid if You Have Gallstones

Hamburgers and other fatty foods should be avoided to prevent gallbladder attacks.
Hamburgers and other fatty foods should be avoided to prevent gallbladder attacks. | Source

Obviously fatty foods should be avoided, although not completely. We need some fat in our diet, but trips to McDonald’s and Burger King are just gallbladder attacks waiting to happen. But there are other foods that can also set off an attack that are not as obvious. Some of these foods include:

  • Chocolate
  • Eggs, Poultry and Milk
  • Pork
  • Onions
  • Coffee
  • Oranges
  • Corn
  • Beans
  • Nuts

Foods that trigger attacks vary among individuals, but each individual usually has some sort of pattern to the attacks. Keeping a food journal may help in identifying the pattern if there is one.

By changing the diet, it is possible to not only prevent gallstones, but prevent future gallbladder attacks and alleviate the need for invasive surgery. Other ways to prevent and alleviate the pain of gallbladder attacks include:

  • Adding exercise will also help lower cholesterol levels and lower the risk of developing the disease.
  • Taking vitamin C supplements will help maintain the natural levels and consistency of cholesterol in the gallbladder, preventing it from solidifying into gallstones.

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


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