Gallbladders and gallstones - what you need to know

Caroline Cassidy

Most of us probably don't give our gallbladder a second thought... until it starts causing discomfort. And problems with the gallbladder are probably more common than you think. If you're concerned that you may be showing symptoms of a gallbladder problem, here's what you need to know.

gallstone causes symptoms and treatment
gallstone causes symptoms and treatment

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What is the gallbladder?
Situated underneath the liver, the primary purpose of the gallbladder is to store and concentrate bile, a liquid produced by the liver itself. Over time the stored bile becomes more concentrated, improving its ability to digest fats, and each time you eat a meal, the gallbladder releases a little into the small intestine to do the job.

Gallstones, from which most gallbladder problems stem, are small stones, usually made from cholesterol, that form inside the organ. Though most people show no symptoms, gallstones can lead to discomfort and further complications.

Causes and symptoms of gallstones
According to the NHS, gallstones develop as a result of an imbalance in the chemical make-up of bile inside the gallbladder, and the majority are thought to form because of unusually high levels of cholesterol that solidifies within the gallbladder.

They are more common in women, particularly those who have had multiple pregnancies, those over 40, anyone suffering from digestive disorders such as Crohn's disease or irritable bowel syndrome, and those who are seriously overweight.

Most commonly, gallstone disease presents by way of biliary colic, caused when a gallstone blocks one of the bile ducts.

It can manifest as a sudden intense pain in the centre or upper right of the abdomen, as a constant dull ache, and sometimes vomiting and nausea. In the early stages, the pain may occur infrequently, but if it becomes more frequent or intense, lasts longer and is combined with a high temperature, it's time to seek medical help.

Treating gallstones that are causing problems is relatively straightforward and largely without risk.

There are a number of treatment methods that aim to break down gallstones, but this is usually only temporary and they are more than likely to return. Therefore, removal of the gallbladder by way of keyhole surgery is most commonly prescribed for those suffering with gallstone disease, but this is a simple procedure and most patients return home within 24 hours of surgery.

The NHS estimates that one in ten adults in the UK have gallstones without ever displaying any symptoms. But if you are in a high-risk category, there are changes you can make that may help prevent problems down the line.

Reducing the amount of fatty, high-cholesterol foods in your diet should be the first step, replacing the processed meats, cakes and biscuits with a low-fat, high-fibre diet with plenty of fresh fruit and veg.

Losing weight, particularly if you are obese, will also likely reduce your risk, but this should be via a healthy, balanced diet and regular exercise, as rapid weight loss could actually increase your risk by disrupting the bile chemistry.

If you are unsure about the safest way to lose weight, or are worried that you have the symptoms of gallstone disease, visit your GP for advice.