Back behind the wheel: Like a rollin’ stone: An introduction to gallstones

by Dr. Christopher Singh

This month we are going to shift gears and talk a little bit about gallstones. This topic is very important for truck drivers as they are at a higher risk of developing gallstones than the general population due to the lifestyle factors associated with life on the road.

Like many people, you may have gallstones and not know it. Often, gallstones do not cause any symptoms and require no medical treatment. However, some people with gallstones will suffer from a gallbladder attack that can cause serious complications, including death.

Bile is a greenish-brown fluid composed of bile salts, fatty compounds, cholesterol and other chemicals. Bile is needed to help digest fats in your small intestine. Normally, when you eat, your gallbladder contracts and releases bile into to the upper part of your small intestines where it helps to break down the fat in your food. However, if bile within your gallbladder becomes chemically unbalanced, it can form into hardened particles that eventually grow into stones. This process usually takes several years.

Now that you know the basics about gallstones, let’s discuss the signs and symptoms you would expect to see if you had them.

The first symptom is chronic indigestion which includes nausea, gas, bloating and occasionally abdominal pain. Often, these symptoms will be experienced after eating high-fat foods such as fries. The second symptom to look for is a sudden, steady pain in your upper middle or upper right abdomen. The pain may occur one to two hours after eating, but may also occur at other times. It can last from 15 to 30 minutes up to several hours.

Other signs and symptoms of gallstones include: jaundice; clay-coloured stools; dark urine; fever; and chills. If you experience any of these symptoms, seek medical treatment immediately.

Who is at risk of developing gallstones? Women between the ages of 20 to 60 are more than twice as likely as men to have gallstones. This is due to the hormone estrogen which causes more cholesterol to be excreted in bile. Another risk factor is body weight. As your body weight increases so does your risk of developing gallstones.

Being even moderately overweight can throw off the chemical balance in your bile leading to stone formation. Low-calorie or rapid weight loss diets can also throw off your bile chemistry. In fact, losing more than three pounds a week may increase your risk of developing gallstones when compared with losing weight more gradually.

Finally, your age plays an important role in gallstone formation. People older than 60 years of age are more likely to have gallstones than those who are younger.

Alright, now let’s discuss how gallstones are diagnosed and treated. The two most common methods used to diagnose gallstones are ultrasonography and computerized tomography (CT) scan.

Ultrasound uses sound waves rather than X-rays to display an image of the organs in your abdomen. This is often the method of choice by most physicians. If you have been diagnosed with large gallstones, the preferred treatment for the majority of people is surgically removing the gallbladder.

In fact, gallbladder surgery is one of the most common surgeries performed in North America. After surgery, your liver continues to produce enough bile for normal digestion. However, some people may experience symptoms such as increased number of bowel movements. In most cases, the symptoms usually reduce over time.

As you can see, gallstones are not a laughing matter, as they can cause significant problems within the digestive system. By now, you should know my motto: Prevention is the best treatment!

Although you can not entirely prevent gallstones from forming, you may be able to lower your risk by following these suggestions:

1. Maintain a healthy body weight;

2. Avoid crash diets or a very low intake of calories – less than 800 calories a day;

3. Exercise regularly;

4. Chose a low-fat, high-fiber diet that emphasizes fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Reduce the amount of animal fat, butter, margarine, mayonnaise and fried foods you eat.

I know that it is easier said than done, especially for truck drivers, as you may not always have access to exercise equipment or healthy foods. But every little bit counts! So maybe next time you are out for dinner, skip the hamburger and fries and go for the salad and soup or park at the back of the parking lot and walk to the truck stop. If you make these simple changes, you will greatly reduce your chances of developing gallstones. Until next month, drive safely!

– Dr. Christopher Singh, B. Kin., D.C., runs Trans Canada Chiropractic at 230 Truck Stop in Woodstock, Ont. He can be reached at 888-252-7327, or email

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