Gallstones: 5 things you need to know

1. What's a gallbladder and what does it do?

Your gallbladder is tucked behind the front edge of your liver. The pear-shaped bag holds all the digestive chemicals, or bile, produced by your liver. 

"When you eat something, it squirts those chemicals out into a little tunnel that then leads into the intestinal system and helps digest your food," said Calgary Dr. Raj Bhardwaj.

2. What are gallstones?

In some people, when the bile inside the gallbladder — made up of a mix of proteins, cholesterol, calcium and other minerals — sits around for too long, it gets concentrated and clumps together, says Bhardwaj.

Dr. Raj Bhardwaj is a Calgary urgent care physician and medical contributor on CBC Radio's the Calgary Eyeopener. (@RajBhardwajMD/Twitter)

"The stones can be as small as a grain of sand or as big as a golfball."

e says gallstones can sit in the gallbladder for years, even decades, without causing any issues.

3. So, when are gallstones a problem?

When they start moving, says Bhardwaj. 

When gallstones start travelling, they can plug the tubes that connect your gallbladder to your liver and pancreas, which can cause several complications:

  • Inflammation of the gallbladder.
  • Jaundice.
  • Inflammation of the pancreas, or pancreatitis.

While 40 per cent of pancreatitis cases are caused by gallstones, Dr. Bhardwaj says only three to seven per cent of people with gallstones will ever develop pancreatitis.

4. Symptoms

The tell-tale sign is sudden pain in either the centre or upper right portion of your abdomen, your right shoulder or between your shoulder blades.

r. Bhardwaj says it's important to remember that not all stomach pain is gallstones, and not all gallstones give pain. 

. Treatment 

  • Removing your gallbladder, surgically.
  • Medication to help dissolve your gallstones, but Bhardwaj says it's expensive and doesn't always work. If it does work, he says it can take a very long time — up to two years.
  • Dr. Bhardwaj adds that eating fibre and maintaining a healthy weight can also help prevent gallstones, but other than surgery, there is no quick fix.