Gallstones are crystalline bodies formed in the body by accretion or concentration of compounds found within normal bile. Gallstones can occur anywhere in the billary tree consisting of the gallbladder, small intestine, pancreas and bile duct among other areas. From here they can cause obstruction and mild discomfort ranging to intense pain. Gallstone symptoms will vary depending on their size and their exact location.
As the gallstones increase gradually in size, the condition normally begins asymptomatic (meaning that there are no symptoms). Gallstone symptoms normally present themselves once the stones exceed 8 millimetres in size. The main symptom which is then experienced is known as the ‘gallstone attack’ (or technically a billiary colic). Here the individual will experience a sharp, intense pain in their abdominal area that increases for thirty minutes to several hours. This pain will be fairly excruciating and debilitating. At the same time they may experience discomfort/pain between the shoulder blades, under the right shoulder or elsewhere in the back much as you might associate with indigestion. In other rarer incidences the pain may also travel downwards to the pelvis and the patient may also experience nausea and vomiting. The pain is very similar to that experienced by patients with kidney stones.
This is the most common and pressing of the gallstone symptoms. One way to check whether a patient is experiencing a gallstone attack is referred to as ‘Murphy’s Sign’, whereby the sufferer is asked to breath in while the gall bladder is palpated. If the gallbladder is inflamed suggesting an attack, then they will experience abrupt pain and be forced to stop inhaling.
Accompanying the attacks are other gallstone symptoms including ‘bloating’ of the abdomen, an inability to consume fatty foods, belching and gas (as you might associate with trapped gas) and indigestion. If these symptoms occur alongside chills a fever, yellowing of the skin and eyes or grey stool then a doctor should be consulted immediately.
In other cases there are no symptoms at all in what is known as ‘silent stones’. In cases of silent stones the individual will experience no discomfort and the internal organs are not affected. As such there is no need for treatment. However when all the above mentioned gallstone symptoms are present the patient will require some form of intervention.
Commonly gallstones are dissolved via ingestion of ursodeoxycholic acid – which the patient may be required to take for up to two years – though this can be slow to act and the chances of a recurrence are high. Surgical options however are 99% successful in permanently eliminating the problem. Interestingly this is also the most profitable option with Gallstones fetching up to $32 a gram for their use as an antipyretic and as an alternative medicine in countries such as China.