The Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment of Gallstones: My Experience
To keep the body in good health is a duty... otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear.— Buddha
I have a problem.
Every so often, though it occurs every three to five days now, I feel like I'm dying. No joke.
My stomach starts to hurt, and then I get this excruciating pain on the right side of my abdomen, right under my rib cage. On the worst occasions, the pain radiates around my back to my kidneys and up through the center of my chest. The first time that happened, I thought I was having a heart attack. The pains and nausea (and worse) go hand in hand.
I have peptic ulcers caused by a bacterial infection I had in 2006 called H. Pylori. I though this was just a worsening of the ulcers or a recurrence of the bacteria.
When these episodes first started, probably in November of 2010, I didn't know what to think. After some internet research and consultations with my best friend who had to have her gallbladder removed several years ago, I decided there was something wrong with my gallbladder, too. So I made the decision to (mostly) steer clear of greasy and acidic foods (bye bye spaghetti), as they tend to cause a flare-up.
Then it got worse.
Every time I overeat, I'm sick. If I even think about gravy, I'm sick. If I even think about thinking about chili cheese fries... well, you get the picture.
For the most part, I've done okay. I do take a few herbal remedies and they help. But then Monday happened (10/10/12.)
We'd had pot roast for supper, and it was amazing. I had an extra spoonful of carrots and potatoes because that's how I roll. Of course, I had a (great big, heaping) ladle of gravy, too. My bad.
By 7:00 p.m. I had the pressure in my stomach, and I knew what was coming. By 10:00, the pain was so bad that I had to ask my roommate to call an ambulance for me. I've never felt this kind of pain in my whole life. At the hospital, even after a shot of morphine, I still thought I was dying.
Turns out, after a terribly painful ultrasound, I was told I had biliary colic.
"I'm sorry. What?"
"Gallstones. You need surgery to get your gallbladder removed."
I think the doctor missed my sarcasm.
My poor attempt at humor aside, however, the incident made me want to get some information out there for anyone who might be having some of the same symptoms.
What Causes Gallstones?
The gallbladder is an organ that's part of your digestive tract. It stores the bile produced by your liver until your body needs it for digesting fats. A gallstone begins as a tiny crystal in the gallbladder about the size of a grain of sand. It's either caused by cholesterol or a combination of bilirubin and calcium salts that are all found in bile.
Over time, these crystals accumulate more cells and grow bigger. Most of the time, they're harmless. Millions of people may have them and never know it. Occasionally, one or more of these "stones" will get big enough to cause some problems.
What Are The Symptoms Of Gallstones?
Gallstones aren't picky. They'll grow in just about anybody. There are some folks who are more prone to having issues with them than others, though. Pre-menopausal women are more likely to have them. Also, women who have had three or more children can develop gallstones. Those who are on low fiber and high cholesterol diets as well as folks who have lost a large amount of weight fairly rapidly can develop them - it's a common side effect of weight loss surgery. Also, people with certain vitamin deficiencies can get them, specifically vitamin C, magnesium, calcium or folate.
Different gallbladder problems can have a lot of the same symptoms so, if you have any or all of these, it does not automatically mean that you have gallstones. Although science cannot explain why, these attacks usually happen at night, regardless of the schedule you keep. (I have had them beginning as early as 6:00 PM or as late as 3:00 AM.) These some of the symptoms you should look for:
- Pain in the right side of the abdomen, usually just below the rib cage
- Radiating pain in the stomach beginning in the middle
- Pain in the chest, under the right shoulder blade or the right lower back
- Gas and bloating with an often foul smelling burp
- Fever and chills
- Yellow discoloration of the whites of the eyes and the skin - jaundice
Please note, if you have that last one, you need to call your doctor pronto.
If you have some of these symptoms, you could just have a really gnarly case of acid indigestion. If you have several of them and have had them on more than one occasion, then it's time to call your doctor - even if his name isn't Pronto. If the pain is so bad that you are having trouble breathing, then you need to be seen by a medical professional immediately. Please don't be dumb like me and let this go on for years before seeing a doctor - I've put myself through literally years of unnecessary pain.
From the beginning of an episode, the pain could last anywhere from thirty minutes to four or five hours. In my experience, if I've thrown up, I will likely be really hungry once all of the pain has subsided. I will eat a small cup of yogurt and it does help. My belly will also usually be very tender after the episode, and that will last for several hours.
When you talk to your doctor, he will likely order an ultrasound to check for the presence of gallstones and to look a the general state of your gallbladder and other organs. From there, he will make his diagnosis and you can talk about treatment.
Treatment of Gallstones
Most likely, if your gallbladder is infested with tons of gallstones and you have recurring attacks, your doctor will sign you up for surgery to remove the gallbladder itself. This procedure is called a cholecystectomy. Though there are other treatments, none are permanent or as effective as the removal of the gallbladder. This could happen one of two ways.
An open cholecystectomy requires an incision on the upper right abdomen. The wound will be several inches long and there can be up to five days in the hospital to recover.
A laparoscopic cholecystectomy is the removal of the gallbladder through small incisions in the abdomen and the recovery time is minimal.
There are "gallstone flushes" all over the internet. Keep in mind that I am not a doctor, but I would strongly urge you to be very careful with these should you choose to do one. Though there are many people who will swear by them, the medical community is, in general, skeptical of them as a whole. Patients have said that they've flushed their gallstones but, upon examination, the material that has been flushed is likely not from the gallbladder. Beware of snake oil!
Because I am going to have have surgery soon to remove my gallbladder, I would love to hear from anyone who has had the procedure. I have a good idea of what to expect, but I'm looking for suggestions on how to make the process easier—especially once I'm back home. I understand there are a lot of things that I'll need to be careful about! Please and thank you!