It may seem obvious, but not everyone knows this: Gallstones aren't actual stones. Or rocks. Or pebbles.
Gallstones, which form in your gallbladder, are typically made up of precipitated cholesterol. Nearly 15 percent of Americans will develop them at some point in their lives, but certain factors increase the likelihood - namely obesity, pregnancy, being over 40 or female and rapid weight loss.
As a board-certified general surgeon at Poinciana Medical Center, I see many patients each month who are seeking relief from gallstones, and that almost always means surgery.
Here are the answers to a few of their most commonly asked questions:
What Are the Causes of Gallstones and What Are the Symptoms?
Typically, gallstones, form when your bile - the fluid that aids digestion and is stored in the gallbladder - contains too much cholesterol. The excess cholesterol forms into crystals, eventually turning into stones that can cause pain and/or block your bile ducts.
After eating, people with gallstones generally experience pain in the upper right portion of the abdomen that may wrap around to the right side of their back. Nausea, vomiting and other digestive problems, including bloating, heartburn and indigestion, may also occur.
When Is It Time for a Consultation?
If you experience pain after a meal, it's time to seek medical help. Your doctor will start by asking about your medical history, which could rule out gallstones. Most likely, an ultrasound will be ordered. If the doctor doesn't see any gallstones, you may also get a CAT scan or a HIDA scan, which is an imaging procedure where dye is injected into a patient to see how the gallbladder is functioning. If gallstones or related diseases are found, you will be scheduled for surgery.
Is There an Alternative to Surgery?
There is medication that may dissolve gallstones, but it is generally unsuccessful and rarely used. Surgery is the best treatment.
If Surgery Is Needed, What Should I Expect?
Surgeons do not remove just the gallstones; the entire gallbladder is taken out. The standard procedure is a laparoscopic cholecystectomy; a fancy way of saying a camera is used to remove the gallbladder through a small incision by the belly button. It is the most common type of elective surgery currently performed at Poinciana Medical Center.
Surgery is generally an outpatient procedure, and most people do not require rehab. However, I always recommend that my patients slow down their regular routines for a couple of weeks after surgery.
How to Prevent Gallstones?
The best way to prevent gallstones - and many other common ailments - is to maintain a healthy diet low in fat and cholesterol and high in fiber, fruits and vegetables. If you are already overweight, it's best to start losing weight in a steady and controlled manner. Rapid weight loss from fad diets can increase levels of fat and cholesterol, which can increase the risk of developing gallstones.
Dr. Owen R. Kieran, a former major in the United States Army Medical Corps, is a board-certified and credentialed general surgeon at Poinciana Medical Center. He practices at Medical Specialty Group at Poinciana. For more information or to schedule a consultation, visit surgeryatpoinciana.com or call (407) 343-1825.