Gallstones are hardened deposits of digestive fluid that form in your gallbladder, the small, pear-shaped organ located on the right side of your abdomen. The gallbladder's function is to move digestive fluids into the small intestine. When the hardened material builds up, it can obstruct the bile duct that carries the fluid to the small intestine, which can trigger intense pain and discomfort. But there are proven treatments for gallstones, including surgery, bile salts, shockwave therapy, and maintaining a healthy diet.

The signs and symptoms of gallstones

What happens when a gallstone blocks the bile duct to cause the obstruction? It causes sudden and, in many cases, constantly accelerating pain in the upper right portion of the abdomen or the center of the abdomen, just below the breastbone. A gallstone attack often presents as intense back pain between the shoulder blades or on the right shoulder. Nausea and vomiting may accompany the pain. Gallstone pain may last just a few minutes, or it can linger for a few hours.


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What causes gallstones?

Doctors are unsure of the exact cause of gallstones, but there have been studies that tend to indicate that too much digestive fluid is the main cause. When the liver produces too much cholesterol, and the bile cannot dissolve it, excess cholesterol forms crystals and, eventually, gallstones. Bilirubin is the substance the body produces to break down red blood cells. Too much can lead to gallstones. If the gallbladder does not empty the digestive fluids completely or often enough, the bile can become concentrated. This contributes to the formation of gallstones.


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Who is at risk?

The Mayo Clinic has identified several types of people who are the most at risk of having a gallstone attack, including women, pregnant women, Mexican-Americans. Native Americans, people with a family history of gallstones, diabetics, those with liver disease, and those who take estrogen medications such as oral contraceptives or hormone therapy drugs. Doctors at The Mayo Clinic believe that people who eat a high-fat, high-cholesterol, low-fiber diet are most at risk of contracting gallstones.


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Reducing the risk of gallstones

Doctors have provided some tips to help people reduce the chances of having gallstones develop. First of all, don't skip meals. Skipping meals or fasting has been shown to increase the risks of gallstones. Rapid weight loss can trigger gallstones. So if you are dieting it is recommended that you lose only about one to two pounds per week.


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Corrective surgery

The most effective and efficient means of treating gallstones is to remove the gallbladder in an operation called a cholecystectomy. It is possible to live without a gallbladder because bile has other ways to reach the small intestine. Doctors usually perform cholecystectomy surgeries on an outpatient basis. Surgeons create four small incisions around the abdomen to insert a small video camera into the area and remove the gallbladder. This type of surgery is called a laparoscopic cholecystectomy. In the cases where one large incision is used to remove the gallbladder, it is called an open cholecystectomy.


Taking bile salts

Specialized treatment of gallstones uses the bile salts produced in the liver to dissolve gallstones. However, it has only been found to be effective in treating a condition known as biliary sludge. Where the liver produces thick bile that can plug up the common bile duct. Bile salt treatment can help by making the bile less thick. Doctors only recommend taking bile salts if, for some reason, surgery is too risky.


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Shockwave therapy

A non-invasive form of gallstone removal is becoming more popular. Known as gallbladder lithotripsy, this method uses ultrasound shockwaves to break the gallstones into smaller particles that can move through the bile duct. How long the therapy takes is contingent on the size and number of stones. The majority of patients can take several months of treatments to have the stones dissolved completely.


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Avoid these foods to stop gallstones

Maintaining a healthy weight through proper diet and nutrition is the key to lowering the risk of gallstones. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases recommends you discuss any changes in your eating habits with your healthcare professional. Want to prevent gallstones? Avoid foods that are high in fat, including eggs, dairy, and meat products, baked goods and fried foods and other processed foods.


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The right way to eat to prevent gallstones

Doctors agree that obesity is the number one risk factor for developing gallstones. Other risky factors include cholesterol, saturated fat, trans fatty acids, refined sugar, and possibly legumes. Good diets that help prevent gallstones include polyunsaturated fat, monounsaturated fat, fiber, and caffeine. Nutritional supplements that might help prevent gallstones include vitamin C, soy lecithin, and iron, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health.


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Cleansing the gallbladder

A relatively new yet still not scientifically-proven treatment of gallstones is called a gallbladder cleanse, a gallbladder flush, or a liver flush. A gallbladder cleanse involves eating or drinking a combination of olive oil, herbs and some type of fruit juice over the course of two or more days. During that time the patient does not eat anything else. Believers in gallbladder cleansing claim the treatment helps break up gallstones and stimulates the gallbladder to release them in stool. However, an analysis of these excreted substances shows it is mainly oil, juice, and other materials.


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