Gallbladder Function and Gallstone Causes, Symptoms and Treatment
The gallbladder is a small but useful organ in our bodies. It's located under the liver on the right side of the upper abdomen. The main functions of the gallbladder are to store a liquid called bile, which is made by the liver, and to release the bile when necessary.
When fat from food enters the small intestine, the gallbladder contracts and sends bile into the intestine through a duct. Here the bile emulsifies the fat, breaking it up into small droplets. Emulsification makes it easier for digestive enzymes to digest the fat.
Although the gallbladder is a helpful organ, it can cause problems in some people. While bile is stored in the gallbladder, water is removed from the bile and it becomes concentrated, which may lead to the formation of solid lumps known as gallstones. The presence of these lumps can lead to a very painful condition known as a gallbladder attack.
The pain of a gallbladder attack may occur while the gallstones are in the gallbladder. It's more likely to develop if a stone leaves the gallbladder and enters one of the bile ducts, however. The pain can be relieved by surgical and nonsurgical treatments. Surgical treatments for gallstones are generally more effective.
The Gallbladder and Bile Ducts
The gallbladder is shaped like a pear and can hold about 50 mL of bile. When full, it's about 8 cm (3.2 inches) long and 4 cm (1.6 inches) wide. It's connected to ducts, or tubes, which transport the bile to where it's needed.
The tube that transports bile out of the gallbladder is called the cystic duct. This joins with the hepatic duct, which transports bile out of the liver, forming the common bile duct. The common bile duct then joins with the pancreatic duct coming from the pancreas and sends the bile into the duodenum, which is the first section of the small intestine. The small intestine is known as the small bowel in some countries.
Bile can flow in either direction in the cystic duct – either into the gallbladder from the liver or out of the gallbladder towards the small intestine.
Diagram of the Bile Ducts
Bile is a watery solution that contains bile salts, cholesterol, fats, a small amount of protein and bilrubin. Bilirubin is a yellow pigment formed from the breakdown of hemoglobin from old or damaged red blood cells.
Two types of gallstones are produced from bile – cholesterol stones and pigment stones. About eighty percent of gallstones are made of solidified cholesterol and are known as cholesterol stones. Pigment stones are made of solidified bilrubin.
Cholesterol stones are yellow in color, but if they contain other substances as well as cholesterol they may be greenish yellow or brownish yellow. Pigment stones are black or dark brown. Black pigment stones form in the gallbladder. Brown pigment stones often form in the bile ducts and may be related to infections. The technical name for the presence of gallstones in the gallbladder is “cholelithiasis.” Gallstones may be tiny or as large as a golf ball.
A Doctor Discusses Gallstones
Causes of Gallstone Formation
Gallstone formation seems to be due to a combination of several factors. It’s thought that heredity plays a role, but lifestyle also affects the possibility of developing gallstones.
If the gallbladder has a decreased ability to contract and release its bile, the likelihood of gallstone formation increases. Other risk factors for developing gallstones include gender (woman are more susceptible than men), age (people over the age of sixty are more likely to develop gallstones than younger people), obesity and excess estrogen in the body (such as estrogen provided by birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy). Pregnant woman also have a high level of estrogen in their body and are susceptible to developing gallstones.
Bile contains bile salts or very similar compounds called bile acids. These chemicals are responsible for emulsifying fats in the duodenum. However, they also break up some of the cholesterol in the bile. Therefore if the bile doesn’t contain enough bile salts, gallstones can form.
Certain ethnic groups seem to have a higher genetic tendency to develop gallstones. For example, gallstones are more common in people of Native American, South American or Northern European descent. People of Asian descent are more likely to develop pigment stones than cholesterol stones.
People with diabetes have an increased risk of developing gallstones. Diabetics often have a high level of triglycerides in their blood, which may be the factor that stimulates gallstone production in their bodies. Triglycerides are a type of fat.
Excess Weight and Gallstones
It’s important to maintain a healthy weight to reduce the chance of developing gallstones. Research has shown that being even moderately overweight increases gallstone risk.
If you’re trying to lose weight, the excess weight should be lost gradually. During rapid weight loss the liver excretes extra cholesterol into the bile (which is one mechanism by which excess cholesterol is removed from the body), increasing the risk of gallstones. Some medications prescribed to lower blood cholesterol cause the same effect by stimulating secretion of cholesterol into bile, which can result in gallstone formation.
Although weight gain must be avoided, regularly eating a small amount of fat helps to prevent gallstones because it stimulates the gallbladder to contract in order to release bile. The amount of saturated fat in the diet should be limited, however, since saturated fat increases the level of cholesterol in the body.
Other Methods That May Prevent Gallstone Formation
A high fiber diet reduces gallstone formation. Fiber from grains and other foods is known to lower the blood cholesterol level. Soluble fiber seems to be especially valuable for this purpose. Oats and barley are good sources of soluble fiber.
Although scientists are not ready to make definite claims, several research studies have shown that regularly drinking caffeinated coffee can reduce the risk of gallstone formation. Some studies show that Vitamin C and regular exercise also decrease gallstone production.
Symptoms and Complications of Gallstone Presence
Gallstone Information from Medical Organizations
Symptoms Caused by Gallstones
If gallstones move out of the gallbladder they can block any of the passageways in the biliary system, including the cystic duct, the hepatic duct and the common bile duct. Gallstones may also enter the pancreatic duct.
While gallstones are in the gallbladder there are often no symptoms, although there may be pain after eating a fatty meal if many gallstones are present or if they are large. However, if gallstones move into the tubes that conduct bile and block them, a person may experience the symptoms of a “gallbladder attack”, also known as biliary colic. These symptoms may include pain in the middle of the upper abdomen, in the upper right abdomen, under the right shoulder and between the shoulder blades. The pain may be severe. It starts shortly after eating and may last for several hours. There may also be nausea and vomiting. Gallbladder attacks may be recurrent.
In some people, blocked bile ducts or a blocked pancreatic duct can lead to complications such as inflammation of the gallbladder (cholecystitis), inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis) and infections. Yellow skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice) may result when the bile ducts are obstructed by gallstones, causing bilirubin from the trapped bile to collect in the body. Although jaundice itself is not serious, it may have a serious underlying cause. Abdominal pain that does not go away or abdominal pain accompanied by fever, chills or jaundice requires immediate medical attention.
Nonsurgical Treatments for Gallstones
Anyone who has unexplained abdominal pain or suspects that have gallstones must visit a doctor for a diagnosis. Common treatments are described below, but the treatment that is right for a particular patient must be prescribed by a physician.
Gallstones that stay in the gallbladder and don’t cause any problems are known as “silent” gallstones. These are generally not treated.
The body may be able to deal with small gallstones that leave the gallbladder by itself. These gallstones move with the bile into the duodenum. From here, the stones travel through the rest of the small intestine, into the large intestine and then out of the body in the feces. Larger gallstones or gallstones that block passageways are more problematic.
There are some nonsurgical methods to treat gallstones, but unfortunately they aren't very effective. If they do work gallstones often reappear in the future. One of these methods is the ingestion of bile acids. Ursodiol (also known as ursodeoxycholic acid) is a bile acid prescribed to break up cholesterol gallstones. Ursodiol works best with small stones. However, it needs to be taken for months before it starts to work and may need to be taken for up to two years. For fifty percent of patients, gallstones reappear within five years of stopping the ursodiol treatment.
Extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy (ESWL) is the use of high energy sound waves to break up gallstones. It works best with small, single stones. Lithotripsy is not used very much nowadays. It can cause serious side effects, such as broken fragments of gallstones from the gallbladder becoming trapped in bile ducts, and there is a high risk of gallstone recurrence.
Surgical Treatment for Gallstones
At the moment the most effective way of solving a gallstone problem is to remove the gallbladder. We don’t need a gallbladder to survive. Some bile normally flows directly from the liver through the hepatic duct towards the duodenum. If a person lacks a gallbladder, all the bile flows from the liver to the duodenum.
Unless a person has other health problems that may make surgery dangerous, most doctors recommend that gallstones be removed surgically. Traditional surgery to remove the gallbladder is called a cholecystectomy. A more common method of removing the gallbladder today is known as a laparoscopy. This is sometimes known as "keyhole surgery" and is minimally invasive. In this type of surgery, several very small incisions are made. A tiny camera attached to a tube is inserted through one incision so that the surgeon can see inside the body. Surgical instruments are inserted through other incisions to remove the gallbladder.
Gallbladder Cleanse or Flush
There are many recipes on the Internet for gallbladder cleanses or flushes to remove gallstones. These generally include some combination of apples, apple juice, apple cider vinegar, lemon or grapefruit juice, magnesium (usually in the form of Epsom salts), and a large quantity of olive oil.
Components of the apple juice are supposed to soften the stones and the olive oil is supposed to force the gallbladder to contract and push the softened gallstones into the intestine.
Ingesting a gallbladder flush recipe often causes the appearance of solid lumps in the feces, often in large numbers - even in people with no symptoms of gallstones. Scientists have analyzed the lumps released from some people who have undergone a flush, however, and have found that they aren’t gallstones but are derived from olive oil. In general, medical doctors consider gallbladder flushes to be ineffective in removing gallstones.
The Future for Gallstone Treatment
Scientists still have a lot to learn about the factors that cause and prevent gallstone formation. Hopefully in the near future they will understand gallstones better and will have improved treatment methods that don't require removal of the gallbladder. Modern surgical techniques for removing the gallbladder are efficient, and we can live well without this organ—but it would be nice if gallstones could be removed without surgery, and if the gallbladder could be left in the body.
© 2010 Linda Crampton