The gallbladder operation is the most common operation in North America. Every year, more than half a million people in the United States and more than 50,000 people in Canada undergo surgery to remove their gallbladders because of gallstones. 90% of people have gallstones; 80% of people do not know that they have gallstones. 50% of children have gallstones. Approximately 80% of all gallstones show no symptoms and may remain "silent" for years. Gallstones are "pebbles" within the gallbladder. The gallbladder is a pear-shaped sac located under the liver which stores the bile secreted by the liver. During a meal (especially one containing fat or protein), the gallbladder contracts, delivering the bile through the bile ducts into the intestines to help with digestion. Abnormal composition of bile leads to formation of gallstones. Gallstone disease is a common cause of abdominal pain, inflammation, and infection of the gallbladder and the pancreas.
Native Americans are especially prone to developing gallstones; women in this population have an 80% chance of developing gallstones during their lives.
Pigment gallstones are more likely to affect the elderly, people with cirrhosis, and those with chronic hemolytic anemia, including sickle cell anemia. People of Asian descent who develop gallstones are most likely to have the pigment type.
Bile is a fluid composed mostly of water, bile salts, lecithin, and cholesterol. Bile is first produced by the liver and then secreted through tiny channels within the liver into a duct. From here, bile passes through a larger tube called the common duct, which leads to the small intestines. Then, except for a small amount that drains directly into the small intestine, bile flows into the gallbladder through the cystic duct. The gallbladder is a four-inch sac with a muscular wall that is located under the liver. Here, most of the fluid (about two to five cups a day) is removed, leaving a few tablespoons of concentrated bile. The gallbladder serves as a reservoir until bile is needed in the small intestine for digestion of fat. When food enters the small intestine, a hormone called cholecystokinin is released, signaling the gallbladder to contract. The force of the contraction propels the bile back through the common bile duct and then into the small intestine, where it emulsifies fatty molecules so that fat and the fat-absorbable vitamins A, D, E, and K can enter the blood stream through the intestinal lining.
About three-quarters of the gallstones found in the U.S. population are formed from cholesterol. Cholesterol makes up only 5% of bile; it is not very soluble, however, so in order to remain suspended in fluid, it must be properly balanced with bile salts. If the liver secretes too much cholesterol into the bile, if the bile becomes stagnant because of a defect in the mechanisms that cause the gallbladder to empty, or if other factors are present, supersaturation can occur. Cholesterol may then precipitate out of the bile solution to form gallstones – a condition known as cholelithiasis. The process is very slow and most often painless. Gallstones can range from a few millimeters to several centimeters in diameter.
The other 25% of gallstones are known as pigment gallstones. They are composed of calcium bilirubinate, or calcified bilirubin, the substance formed by the breakdown of hemoglobin in the blood. These black stones often form in the gallbladders of people with hemolytic anemia or cirrhosis.
At any point, stones may obstruct the cystic duct, which leads from the gallbladder to the common bile duct, and cause pain (biliary colic), infection and inflammation (cholecystitis), or all of these. About 15% of people with stones in the gallbladder also have stones in the common bile duct (choledocholithiasis), which sometimes pass into the small intestine but also may lodge in the duct and cause distention, infection, or pancreatitis.
In patients with abdominal pain, causes other than gallstones are often responsible if the pain lasts less than 15 minutes, is present most of the time, frequently comes and goes, or is not severe enough to limit activities.
Once diagnosed with gallstones, within the first five years 10% of patients develop symptoms, and within 20 years, 20% have symptoms. This means someone with stones has an 80% chance of living without symptoms – that is, about 80% of people with gallstones never experience any symptoms. They may be discovered by a routine chest X-ray or other diagnostic tests looking for problems unrelated to the gallbladder.
The risk of people with gallstones developing mild symptoms is 1% to 3% annually. Most other people remain asymptomatic (without symptoms) for at least two years after stone formation begins. If symptoms do occur, the chance of developing pain is about 2% per year for the first ten years after stone formation, after which the chance for developing symptoms decrease. On average, symptoms take about eight years to develop. The reason for the decline in incidence after ten years is not known, although some physicians suggest that "younger" stones may cause more symptoms.
Most people who develop symptomatic gallbladder disease have pain in the mid-upper or right-upper section of the abdomen and it often radiates to the right shoulder blade. This pain is caused by obstruction of the bile-carrying duct, called the cystic duct, which leads from the gallbladder to the small intestine. Large or fatty meals can precipitate the pain, but it usually occurs several hours after eating, often at night.
The pain is sometimes referred to as "colic," which would indicate mild, transient pain. However, this is a misnomer because the pain is usually severe, steady, and lasts from 15 minutes to 6 hours. The pain is often at night and not related to meals. Once the first pain has occurred, the probability of a second attack is between 50% and 70% within 2 years (if no change in diet is made). Nausea and vomiting are also common. Between attacks everything is usually normal.
Changes in position, over-the-counter pain relievers, and passage of gas do not relieve the symptoms. Biliary pain usually disappears after several hours. Attacks of pain tend to be intermittent and infrequent; the chance of pain recurring within a year is less than 50%. In one study, 30% of people who had had one or two attacks experienced no further biliary pain over the next ten years.
Acute gallbladder inflammation (acute cholecystitis) is a more serious problem than biliary colic. It begins abruptly and subsides gradually. Nausea, vomiting, and severe pain and tenderness in the upper right abdomen are the most common complaints; fever is usual but may be absent. The discomfort is intense and steady and lasts until the condition is treated with medicine or surgery. Patients with acute cholecystitis frequently complain of pain when drawing a breath. The pain can radiate from the abdomen to the back. Acute cholecystitis is usually caused by gallstones, but, in some cases, can occur without stones. Anyone who experiences an attack of acute cholecystitis should seek medical attention; it can progress to gangrene or perforation of the gallbladder if left untreated.
Chronic gallbladder disease (chronic cholecystitis) occurs because of the prolonged presence of gallstones and low-grade inflammation. Scarring causes the gallbladder to become stiff and thick. Symptoms of this condition tend to be vague. Complaints of gas, nausea, and abdominal discomfort after meals are common, just as they often are in people without gallbladder disease.
Common Bile Duct Stones (Choledocholithiasis)
Stones lodged in the common bile duct (choledocholithiasis) can block the flow of bile and cause jaundice. Serious infection of the bile duct (cholangitis) may develop that causes fever, chills, nausea and vomiting, and severe pain in the upper-right quadrant of the abdomen. If there is evidence for common bile duct stones, such as dark urine, jaundice, pancreatitis, or elevated liver function tests, then more extensive tests may be used.
Most gallstones provoke no symptoms at all. One study reported that the risk of developing symptoms was 10% at five years, 15% at ten years, and only 18% at fifteen years, with no deaths reported. Asymptomatic gallstones seldom lead to problems. Death from gallstones is very rare, accounting for only 0.2% of annual deaths in the United States. Serious effects from gallstones are usually from stones in the bile duct or surgical complications.
Blood tests are usually normal in people with simple biliary pain or chronic cholecystitis. In acute cholecystitis, and especially choledocholithiasis (stones in the bile duct), however, blood tests of the liver show elevations of the enzyme alkaline phosphatase and bilirubin. Bilirubin is the orange-yellow pigment found in bile; high levels cause jaundice, which gives the skin a yellowish tone. A high white blood cell count (leukocytosis) is another common finding but should not be relied on to establish a diagnosis of acute cholecystitis.
The diagnostic challenge posed by gallstones is to be sure that abdominal pain is caused by stones and not by some other condition. Ultrasound or other imaging techniques easily find gallstones. Nevertheless, because gallstones are common and most cause no symptoms, simply finding stones does not necessarily explain a patient's pain, which may be caused by numerous other conditions.
Although removal of the gallbladder has not been known to cause any long-term effects aside from occasional diarrhea, some researchers have been concerned about its effects on the body's cholesterol levels. One study found that within three days of the operation, levels of total cholesterol and LDL returned to their preoperative levels. After three years, however, some types of cholesterol not ordinarily associated with coronary artery disease had risen significantly. These results did not necessarily indicate any increased risk for coronary artery disease, but they did show that the metabolism of cholesterol by the liver had been altered. People who have had their gallbladders removed should have their cholesterol levels checked periodically, as should every adult.
Extraporeal Shock Wave Lithotripsy (ESWL)
ESWL has been used for over 15 years to break up kidney stones. During this treatment, shock waves generated outside the body are focused on gallstones in order to fracture them into smaller particles, the size of sand granules. The success rate with small stones (under 20mm) is 77%, larger stones is 60%, and multiple stones is 41% – success means complete disappearance in 6 months. The addition of bile acids to dissolve the small fragments may improve upon the success rate. This approach is of particular value for those patients who are poor surgical candidates and for those wanting to keep their gallbladders.
Bile Acid Treatment
In the normal gallbladder, bile acids keep the cholesterol in solution, preventing stone formation. Two bile acids, chenodeoxycholic acid (CDCA) and ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), when given as medications have been found to dissolve gallstones. CDCA has significant side-effects, auch as diarrhea and abnormal liver tests. UDCA has few side-effects. Successful treatment is most commonly seen with noncalcified stones of less than 5mm. The rate of dissolving is about 1mm per month. A combination of CDCA with UDCA has about a 50% rate of complete dissolving of noncalcified stones with 6 months of therapy.
The addition of cholesterol-lowering medications, known as "statins", like lovastatin (Mevacor) and simvastatin (Zocor), improve the effectiveness of UDCA therapy. These cholesterol-lowering agents reduce both serum and bile cholesterol in humans, and also inhibit cholesterol gallstone formation in animals. With the same cholesterol-lowering benefits, a healthy diet helps dissolve gallstones when used in combination with ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), which is sold as Actigall. A doctor's prescription is needed.
When obstruction of the bile-carrying duct is prolonged (more than 6 hours), then distention and inflammation can develop with secondary bacterial infection in about 50% of cases. This is a serious complication that usually requires immediate medical attention. Stones can also block the ducts draining the pancreas and cause pancreatitis.
The mildest and most common symptom of gallbladder disease is intermittent pain called biliary colic, which occurs either in the mid- or upper-right portion of the upper abdomen. Large or fatty meals can precipitate the pain, but it usually occurs several hours after eating, often at night. Biliary colic produces a steady pain, which can be quite severe and may be accompanied by nausea. Changes in position, over-the-counter pain relievers, and passage of gas do not relieve the symptoms. Biliary colic usually disappears after several hours. Attacks of pain tend to be intermittent and infrequent; the chance of pain recurring within a year is less than 50%. In one study, 30% of people who had had one or two attacks experienced no further biliary pain over the next ten years.
Acute gallbladder inflammation (acute cholecystitis) begins abruptly and subsides gradually. Nausea, vomiting, and severe pain and tenderness in the upper right abdomen are the most common complaints; fever is usual but may be absent. The discomfort is intense and steady and lasts until the condition is treated with medicine or surgery. Patients with acute cholecystitis frequently complain of pain when drawing a breath. The pain can radiate from the abdomen to the back. Acute cholecystitis is usually caused by gallstones, but, in some cases, can occur without stones.
Pale stools are often due to some form of bile dysfunction. Bile salts, which are made by the liver and excreted via the bile ducts, make feces the normal brown color. An inflamed liver (hepatitis) or some kind of blockage in the bile ducts (like a gall stone) can turn stools pale.
The pain is usually felt in the upper abdomen but sometimes the pain may spread to the right shoulder or between the shoulder blades. The pain often occurs following a heavy or fatty meal and is sometimes one of the main symptoms of a more advanced disease state.
Most people get foamy urine now and again, typically because of muco-proteins in the fish, meat or chicken that they eat. During digestion, the body doesn't break down these proteins completely, so they are expelled in the urine. As muco-proteins shoot out of the body, they momentarily come in contact with air and then with water in the toilet bowl. Foam appears because protein does not mix with air or water.
These bubbles occur most frequently in concentrated (dark) urine, like the urine that is passed right after waking up in the morning. If the urine is extremely foamy and continues all the time, there may be a problem with bile salts or the gallbladder.
Bladder dysfunction is said to be a symptom.
Obesity in both men and women increases the risk for gallstones. This may be a result of lower levels of bile salts relative to cholesterol in the bile causing a higher risk for cholesterol supersaturation and the formation of stones.
Increased risk of gallstone formation has been observed in women who take oral contraceptives. Women of childbearing age using oral contraceptives may want to select one with a low estrogen level to reduce their risk, or use other methods of birth control.
Hydrangea is considered an anti-lithic herb, which prevents stones or gravel from forming in the kidneys and bladder. Anti-lithic herbs can also assist the body in removing stones and gravel from these organs.
Ultrasound, the diagnostic method most frequently used to detect gallstones, is a simple, rapid, and noninvasive imaging technique. Ultrasound detects gallstones as small as two millimeters in diameter with an accuracy of 90% to 95%. The patient must not eat for six or more hours before the test, which takes only about 15 minutes. During the same procedure, the physician can check the liver, bile ducts, and pancreas and quickly scan the gallbladder wall for thickening (characteristic of cholecystitis). There are many other, more sophisticated tests, that may be suggested for further evaluation of the problem.
Gallbladder removal for stones and disease is called a cholecystectomy. The first such operation for symptomatic gallbladder disease was performed in 1882. It is preformed by cutting a 4 to 8 inch hole in the right upper quadrant of the abdomen. The gallbladder is directly visualized and removed by the surgeon. Laparoscopy cholecystectomy was introduced in 1987. This technique is done using a small scope through which the gallbladder is removed. Small incisions, leaving barely visible scars, are made and the patient has a much quicker recovery than with open surgery.
Sixteen patients with gallstones who were scheduled for surgery received 500mg of Vitamin C four times per day for two weeks prior to surgery. Another sixteen patients who had their gallbladders removed did not receive Vitamin C (the control group). During surgery, bile was taken from the gallbladder of each patient. Vitamin C treatment resulted in a significant increase in the concentration of phospholipids in bile (phospholipids such as lecithin have been shown to prevent stone formation). More importantly, it took seven days for the bile from Vitamin C-treated patients to form cholesterol crystals (the first step in stone formation), compared with just two days in the control group. [Eur J Clin Invest 1997;27: pp.387-391]
Vitamin C also could help dissolve gallstones, although that probably would require several years of continuous treatment, combined with a strict diet. It is noteworthy that birth-control pills have been shown both to reduce blood levels of Vitamin C and to increase the risk of gallstones.
Flushing the gallbladder can help pass stones that would likely have remained and enlarged over time. The regular use of this flush will help prevent the development of gallstones, and helps to remove thickened bile by mobilizing it.
In research published in 1983 from the University Department of Medicine, scientists stated, "Bile is significantly more saturated with cholesterol after 6 weeks on a refined carbohydrate diet (white flour and sugar) than after a similar period on an unrefined carbohydrate diet (whole wheat and grains)."
In a study published in the British Medical Journal, it was shown that vegetarian women had a much lower incidence of gallstones than non-vegetarian women. Of the 632 non-vegetarians, overall occurrence of gallstones was 25%. Vegetarians had only half as many gallstone problems, with 12% being found to have gallstones.
Studies have shown oils high in monounsaturated fats such as olive, canola, peanut, avocado and almond oil to be beneficial for the prevention of gallstones.
Consuming beets, or beet extracts, and taurine has been shown to thin bile and cause it to flow more freely. This should reduce the tendency toward stagnation which can contribute to gallstone formation.
Studies have shown that the more physically active one is, the lower one's risk of gallstone formation. One study indicated that men who performed endurance-type exercise (such as jogging and running, racquet sports, and brisk walking) for thirty minutes five times per week reduced their risk for gallbladder disease by up to 34%. The benefit depended more on the intensity of activity than the type of exercise. Some researchers guess that in addition to controlling weight, exercise helps normalize blood sugar levels and insulin levels, which, if abnormal, may contribute to gallstones.