What Are Gallstones and How Are They Treated?

What Are Gallstones and How Are They Treated?
By Annette M. Elbert, MD, general surgeon at USMD Hospital at Fort Worth

The gallbladder can cause a lot of problems. Every year, about a quarter of a million people in the United States need treatment for painful gallstones – rock-like crystals as small as grains of sand or as big as golf balls. They form from cholesterol or bile, a substance needed for digestion.

Women are twice as likely to get gallstones as men, and all adults ages 60 and older face a higher risk. Left untreated, gallstones can lead to jaundice or pancreatitis.

Gallstone treatment

In the past, gallstones usually meant open surgery, a 5- to 8-inch scar, and up to five days in the hospital. Today, surgeons use laparoscopic techniques that provide a quick recovery, less pain and minimal scars.

For this operation, the surgeon makes a tiny cut in the abdomen and inserts a laparoscope. This is a thin tube with a tiny video camera at the end, which shows large images on a video monitor. The surgeon makes a few more small cuts, and then carefully removes the gallbladder. Many patients can go home the same day.

Do you have gallstones?

Gallstone attacks tend to come on suddenly, often after a fatty meal. Patients feel a severe pain in their upper abdomen, usually on the right side. Other symptoms include:

  • Excessive belching
  • Back or right shoulder pain
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sweating
  • A low-grade fever

If you experience any of these feelings, talk to your doctor. Laparoscopic techniques may be able to ease your discomfort.

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