Have you ever eaten a meal and soon after, suddenly had severe (excruciating) pain in your abdomen?
If you answered “yes” you may have gallstones.
Pain after a meal that is high in fat (bacon, fries, burgers etc…) is a common symptom that is experienced with individuals with gallstones.
What are gallstones?
They are a collection of hard solid material that forms in the gallbladder.
These stones can vary in size. Small stones can be the size of a grain of sand and large ones can be as big as a golf ball.
There are three main types of gallstones: Cholesterol, bilirubin and calcium. Bilirubin is a pigment that is produced when the liver processes waste products.
A high level of bilirubin in the body causes yellowing of the skin. Each stone is named by what it is made of.
Eighty per cent of all gallstones are made of cholesterol, which is the most common type. If there is an increased concentration of cholesterol in bile, along with abnormal emptying of the gallbladder, your risk of developing this type of stone is increased.
You can develop one large stone or have hundreds of smaller ones, or a combination of the two.
The gallbladder is located just below your last rib on the right side of your body.
It is a hollow, pear-shaped organ, three-to-four inches long and one inch wide. The gallbladder’s primary function is to store bile.
Bile is a thick, brown liquid that is produced by the liver to aid in the digestion of fats.
After each meal, the gallbladder contracts and secretes bile. Bile travels from the gallbladder to the small intestines via a common bile duct.
Once there is no more food in the small intestines, the gallbladder stops contracting and relaxes.
The pain that is experienced from having gallstones is due to the stones blocking the flow of bile to the small intestines.
Bile that is left in the gallbladder becomes more concentrated, which can irritate the bladder causing inflammation.
These gallstones can also irritate the lining of the bile ducts, causing discomfort. This is very painful, and is usually short lived (a couple of hours) and occurs after meals.
Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting and a bloated feeling in the stomach and chest. Pain may also extend or radiate into the back between the shoulder blades or under the right shoulder.
There are many conditions that have similar symptoms. However, if this type of pain occurs after a fatty meal, there is a good chance that you may have gallstones.
The good news is most gallstones do not cause illness and are termed “silent” stones.
These stones can be asymptomatic (no pain), and never cause you a problem. Typically, they are large stones found in the gallbladder and do not move around. These stones are often discovered when tests (X-rays, ultrasound) are done for other health concerns. Smaller stones can be passed without any complications.
If the stones are too big to be passed, surgery is the primary mode of treatment. Luckily, we do not need a gallbladder.
The bile that is formed in the liver can go directly to the small intestines.
Other treatments include oral dissolution therapy (taking drugs to dissolve the stone) and extracorporeal shockwave lithotripsy (breaking down stones with shockwaves).
There are many risk factors that may predispose a person to develop gallstones. Here are some of the major risk factors:
Being a female increases your risk.
Women between the ages of 20 and 40 are twice as likely to get gallstones compared to men. Estrogen (female sex hormone) increases the amount of cholesterol in bile.
Obesity also increases your risk of gallstones. Being overweight reduces the amount of bile salts, which affects the ability of cholesterol to stay dissolved in bile.
Obesity also affects the ability of the gallbladder to empty properly, which is directly related to the development of cholesterol gallstones.
Most gallstones occur in younger people, but they are not often diagnosed until after the age 60.
Rapid weight loss is another risk factor.
“Crash diets” and fasting increase the body’s metabolism, resulting in the body burning fat rapidly. This causes the liver to react by releasing extra cholesterol into bile.
Fasting slows down gallbladder emptying and voila! You have a recipe for cholesterol gallstones.
Gallstones are common, but with proper nutrition and a healthy lifestyle they can be prevented.
Remember, severe pain after a fatty meal may indicate gallstones.
So make sure that you visit your doctor as soon as possible.
Until next month take care and drive safely!
– Dr. Jerry Singh, B. Kin., D.C., runs Trans Canada Chiropractic at 230 Truck Stop in Woodstock, Ont. He can be reached at 1-888-252-7327, or e-mail Dr. Singh at TCC@transcanadachiropractic.com