Have you ever felt a strange aching pain in your upper abdomen? Usually digestive discomfort after a hearty meal isn’t anything to worry about, but for others, it’s a sign of a malfunctioning gallbladder.
Some people with gallstones never exhibit symptoms, while others experience severe pain. If you are experiencing pain in the upper abdomen or right side of the body, you may have gallstones, and will want to seek treatment to avoid further complications. At least in the United States, about 25 percent of newly diagnosed patients with gallstones will need treatment.
The gallbladder’s main function is to store bile, a substance secreted by the liver that helps with digestion. Sometimes bile contents crystallize and form gallstones.
Gallstones, which can be as small as a grain of salt or as large as a golf ball, can cause some serious problems. They can block ducts inside the organ, causing the gallbladder to become inflamed. Even worse, when a gallstone passes out of the gallbladder duct and into the main bile duct, it can lead to a bile duct infection that can ultimately cause inflammation of the pancreas.
Many patients have gallbladder surgery to alleviate pain and to avoid the potentially serious conditions caused by gallstones. In fact, surgery — in this case, a cholecystectomy, or gallbladder removal — is the most common form of treatment for gallstones. But the fact that surgically removing gallstones requires the removal of an entire organ has led to a growing interest in nonsurgical treatments for gallstones.
Why Treatment for Gallstones Is Necessary
Besides alleviating symptoms, treatment for gallstones is necessary to avoid a progression that can result in severe conditions, such as acute cholecystitis, the condition in which the gallstone blocks the gallbladder ducts, causing the gallbladder to become inflamed and infected. Patients with acute cholecystitis are usually hospitalized and receive antibiotics, pain medication, and often surgery.
If you do not have symptoms, the most common treatment is to “wait and see,” because the risks outweigh the benefits for both medical and surgical treatments. If you have gallbladder symptoms, surgical treatments are preferred unless you are at high risk, and then drug treatments may be utilized.
“If someone is symptomatic, we do recommend patients get the gallbladder taken out,” says Nikhil Kumta, MD, an attending gastroenterologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “[Gallbladder surgery] is minimally invasive, so the risk of complications is low. But if people are unable to go through surgery, if someone is really old or really sick, there are different treatment options.”