What are Gallstones?

warning signs of a gallbladder problemGallstones, a condition also known as cholelithiasis, are pieces of hard material that form in the gallbladder, the organ responsible for excreting the necessary amounts of bile into your body for digestive purposes.

These small pieces of material can cause severe pain and even block the surrounding ducts.  They can range in size from as small as a piece of grain to even as large as a golf ball.

Some people produce only one gallstone in their gallbladders, while others may form multiple stones.

Gallstones are quite common, especially in women and those over the age of 40.

Common Symptoms of Gallstones

Gallstones are thought to form for a number of reasons.

There may be an imbalance of cholesterol or other pigments making up your bile that crystallize and form these hard substances.  An excessive amount of bilirubin may also play a role in forming gallstones.  Lastly, if your gallbladder is not emptying correctly, the bile may become too concentrated and gallstones could potentially form.

Most times people who have gallstones never experience any symptoms.

If they have yet to cause any type of duct blockage or severe inflammation, you may experience no pain at all and they may dissolve on their own.  However, when the gallstones are severe, some common symptoms of gallstones you may experience include:

  • Pain in the upper abdomen and back, especially near the right shoulder blade
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Bloating, indigestion, belching, and heartburn

It will be difficult to take deep breaths, the pain will often be continuous for hours at a time and last up to even as long as 24 hours before subsiding, and will usually occur at night or after a meal.

Gallstone Surgery

Usually, should the gallstones not dissipate on their own, things such as medication, shock-wave therapy, and contact solvent treatment will dissolve the gallstones in your gallbladder and relieve you of any pain you are experiencing.  However, there are the instances where the only option available is to have a gallstone surgery whereby the entire gallbladder is removed.

Removing the gallbladder is one of the most common procedures performed in the United States.

Laparoscopic gallbladder surgery is the most common surgery done to remove the surgery.  This involves a light viewing laparoscope that is inserted through several small incisions in your abdomen to remove the gallstones and gallbladder.  Very rarely is an open gallbladder surgery required where larger incisions are made to remove the gallbladder.

Some risks involved with gallstone surgery are:

  • Bleeding
  • Blood vessel damage
  • Infection
  • Injury to the common bile duct
  • Injury to the small intestine
  • Pancreatitis (inflammation in the pancreas)

After the surgery is performed, so long as you can tolerate liquids easily, you should be able to go home the day of the surgery.  Sometimes complications arise that may require additional monitoring, although this is rare.  Most people return to normal activities between 7 and 10 days post-surgery.

With over 20 years of highly-specialized experience and training, Dr. Mark Fraiman is recognized as an expert in the treatment of gallbladder disease including gallstone surgery.

Using a multidisciplinary approach, Dr. Fraiman works closely with a team of specialists at St. Joseph Medical Center’s Liver and Pancreas Center to come up with an individualized plan for each of his gallbladder patients.  Should gallstone surgery become an option for one of his patients, Dr. Fraiman is committed to providing the best patient care possible.

How Do I Know If I Have Gallstones?

The warning signs of a gallbladder problem include sharp pain in the upper right or middle part of the abdomen. The pain is usually severe and starts suddenly. It is steady and may radiate to your back or the area near your right shoulder blade. Having a lot of pain, especially after a meal, is a common symptom of gallstones. Movement doesn’t have any effect on the pain.

Other symptoms that may accompany a gallbladder attack include fever, nausea, vomiting and clay-colored stools. Complications from gallstones may cause pancreatitis, jaundice, fistula, sepsis and ileus. If you suspect your symptoms may be due to gallstones, seek prompt medical treatment to get your digestive tract running smoothly again.

Single Incision Keyhole Surgery

Apart from laparoscopic cholecystectomy, single-incision keyhole surgery may be used to remove the gallbladder. In this type of surgery, a very small cut is made, which means you’ll barely have a scar.

However, this type of surgery is very rare, and access to it needs an experienced surgeon with specialized training. Dr. Fraiman is recognized as an expert in the surgical treatment of gallstones using this approach.

Open Surgery

Laparoscopic cholecystectomy and keyhole surgery may not always be recommended, especially if you:

  • Are over six months pregnant
  • Are extremely overweight
  • Have a gallbladder structure that makes laparoscopic treatment dangerous

In these cases, open surgery is often the best way to treat gallstones. During this procedure, an incision of about 10cm is made in your abdomen below the ribs to access the gallbladder and remove it. You’ll be under anesthesia, so you won’t feel any pain during the procedure.

Open surgery is just as effective as laparoscopic and keyhole surgery, but it does cause more visible scarring and much slower recovery times. You’ll be in the hospital for up to seven days, and it may take you approximately six weeks to fully recover.