What The Heck Are Gallstones?

Go ahead, name three organs…

“Gallbladder” probably wasn’t on that list at all—even though, you know, the word “gall” is in that headline up there. This organ in the upper-right part of your abdomen generally flies pretty under-the-radar…until you’ve got some serious stomach pain and start Googling symptoms.

Cue the discovery of gallstones, which are surprisingly common, affecting 10 to 15 percent of the U.S. population, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).

But uh, other than sounding like actual hell on earth (stones? in my gallbladder?) what exactly are gallstones, how are they treated, and, probably most importantly, how can you avoid them at all costs?

Okay, what exactly are gallstones made of?

To understand what gallstones are, you have to know a little bit about the gallbladder first—like what it does

The gallbladder stores bile, which is a mix of water, cholesterol, bile acids or salts, and bilirubin (a product of broken-down red blood cells), as well as body salts (potassium and sodium) and metals like copper.

That bile is used to help with digestion—specifically breaking down fats into fatty acids, per the U.S. National Library of Medicine, so the body can use it for energy and other bodily functions.

Gallstones (a.k.a. cholelithiasis), however, are hardened pieces of compounds in that bile—mostly cholesterol or bilirubin. And while doctors aren’t totally sure what causes gallstones, they likely occur when there’s an imbalance of salt or cholesterol in the gallbladder, says Douglas Smink, M.D., M.P.H., an associate professor of surgery at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

Some good looking gallstones! These stones are hardened deposits of a digestive fluid that can form in the gallbladder, which can eventually block the exiting bile ducts and cause sudden, severe abdominal pain, known as biliary colic. They range in size from as small as a grain of sand to as large as a golf ball. Gallstones are very frequently found during a cholecystectomy (surgical resection of the gallbladder) and there can be HUNDREDS of them in some instances. ?:@justageneralsurgeon Caption written by student doctor @mike.dicaro

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But gallstones aren’t all the same. There are two types, according to the NIDDK: cholesterol stones and pigment stones. Cholesterol stones are typically yellow-green in color and made up of, well, cholesterol; while pigment stones are darker and made up of bilirubin.

What are the symptoms of gallstones?

Gallstones removed from the gallbladder.
Getty Images

Here’s the thing about gallstones—many times they’re known as “silent stones”—and they don’t have any symptoms at all. Those silent stones also don’t need treatment, since they don’t stop any of your organs (like your gallbladder, liver, or pancreas) from working.

But when gallstones block your bile ducts, bile can build up in your gallbladder and cause a gallbladder attack (a.k.a. biliary colic), characterized by pain in your upper-right abdomen after a particularly fatty meal.

Sometimes, those gallbladder attacks resolve once the gallstone moves out of the duct’s way—but other times, gallstones can stay lodged, causing complications, per the NIDDK. Symptoms of gallstone complications include:

How are gallstones diagnosed?

First and foremost, if you’re suffering from any of those gallstone complication symptoms, get thee to an emergency room, STAT.

There, doctors will likely ID your gallstones through an ultrasound of your abdomen, though blood tests are sometimes used too, to find signs of infection or inflammation in your bile ducts, gallbladder, pancreas, or liver, per the NIDDK.

How are gallstones treated?

Gallstones are a little more difficult to get rid of, unlike kidney stones, which can be passed (a.k.a peed out) or broken up so that your body can get rid of them more easily, explains Smink.

“With gallstones, if you broke them up, they could irritate the liver or the pancreas on the way out and that can be serious and potentially life-threatening,” he says.

An assortment of gallstones.
Getty Images

That’s why treatment involves removing the entire gallbladder, a surgery called cholecystectomy. It’s actually one of the most common surgical procedures in the United States, per the NIDDK. P.S.: You can absolutely live without a gallbladder; it’s not an essential organ, says Smink.

There are two different types of gallbladder removal surgeries, per the NIDDK: a laparoscopic cholecystectomy, which is essentially an out-patient procedures that you can go home from the following day, and an open cholecystectomy, which is invasive surgery that needs to happen when the gallbladder is very inflamed and irritated.

But once your gallbladder has been removed, and you’re all healed up, life will likely go back to normal—other than a small chance of softer, more frequent poops, from a change in bile flow, per the NIDDK.

Gallstones sound awful—how can you prevent them?

There’s no clear-cut way to prevent gallstone complications—or gallstones, to begin with—as experts aren’t sure as to why the stones form in the first place. You can, however, reduce your chances of gallbladder attacks by cutting back on fatty foods (think: anything fried or covered in butter), says Smink.

Gallstone are also often associated with being overweight, per the NIDDK, so losing weight safely or maintaining a healthy weight can also reduce your gallstone chances.

What women who have had gallstones want you to know:

“The first attack lasted 10 hours with peak intensity lasting about three hours. During that time I blacked out, vomited frequently, had intestinal distress, and couldn’t stand, speak, or breath normally.”Reddit user mmacaluso915

“I had [my gallbladder] out when I was 15 years old. It didn’t suck at all, I had it removed via laparoscopy on a Wednesday, went home that day, and returned to school on Monday. Really, it was kind of no big deal. I felt perfectly fine by Monday and my diet is basically the same now as it ever was. Maybe a bit healthier now that I’m an adult, but I don’t really take into consideration that I don’t have a gallbladder when deciding what to eat.”Reddit user kinkakinka

“I have had gallstones…and they were definitely the most painful thing that ever happened to me. Even morphine didn’t touch the pain.” Reddit user ConnieC60

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