About nine years ago, I had gallstones. Upon being advised by my doctor, I went under the knife to remove my gallbladder, and six months later, my surgeon confirmed that I had recovered fully. What are gallstones?
Gallstones are hardened lumps or deposits of digestive fluid that are formed in your gallbladder.
Your gallbladder is situated on the right side of your abdomen. It is a small, pear-shaped organ and nestles just under your liver.
No, you can’t feel it by pressing on your tummy.
The gallbladder’s purpose is to hold one of your digestive fluids called bile.
Bile is actually made and secreted by your liver, not your gallbladder, as some people mistakenly think.
But your liver does not have much storage space for fluids, and that’s why you need a gallbladder to store it in.
What is bile used for?
Bile is made up of bile acids, which are very important to help digest and absorb fat and fat-soluble vitamins.
Think of all the fatty meats, cheeses and fried foods you might be consuming. Also think about vitamins A, D, E and K, which can only be dissolved in fat.
Bile is also helpful in the elimination of certain waste products from your body, especially haemoglobin from destroyed red blood cells.
It also eliminates any excess cholesterol that isn’t used for your body functions.
Why do gallstones develop?
Actually, no one is 100% sure. But scientists and doctors do have some theories.
One theory is that when our bile contains too much cholesterol – or at least, when our liver produces more cholesterol than our bile can dissolve and take away – this excess cholesterol turns into crystals, which eventually become stones.
Another theory is that when too much bilirubin is produced, it forms gallstones.
This happens when there is too much breakdown of red blood cells, like in haemolytic anaemia.
It also happens when there is too much bilirubin being produced by the liver, such as when there are biliary tract infections or liver cirrhosis.
A third theory is that when your gallbladder does not contract normally, it does not empty completely.
The leftover bile then becomes very thick and concentrated, and contributes to the formation of gallstones.
Gallstones can range from the very small (the size of a grain of sand) to one as large as a golf ball.
Some people have only one gallstone. Others have multiple ones at the same time.
How do I remove gallstones?
Actually, most people who have gallstones do not have any symptoms. And most of people without symptoms will never need any treatment.
If you do have symptoms, such as a pain in your upper right abdomen that is getting worse, then you will be given options for treatment.
You may be recommended to undergo gallbladder surgery.
Here, it is recommended that your whole gallbladder be removed, because gallstones frequently recur. This type of surgery is called a cholecystectomy.
Or you may be recommended to take medications to dissolve your gallstones.
I would rather take medications!
You should know that medications may take months or years to dissolve your gallstones. Meanwhile, you will be suffering from all that pain.
Moreover, your gallstones may form again because your gallbladder is still there.
Worse still, these medications don’t always work.
They are actually usually reserved for people who cannot undergo surgery for specific health reasons.
Okay, I’ve had my gallbladder removed. Does it mean my body is now functioning at less than 100%? Will this affect my other body organs? Will I get any complications?
No, it will not affect you.
Your liver is the one that produces the bile.
In the absence of your gallbladder, the bile flows directly from your liver into your small intestine. Your gallbladder was only a storage device while it was there.
Removal of it won’t affect your digestion of food.
It can cause diarrhoea, but this is only temporary.
Will there be any residual gallstones in the tubing that is left?
There are some cases of gallstones developing in the duct system that has been left behind, especially if you are at risk of developing gallstones in the first place.
Risk factors of developing gallstones include being female, obese or pregnant, taking contraceptive pills, eating a high-calorie diet, or having high oestrogen
levels, diabetes or gastrointestinal problems.
In such a case, you should speak with your doctor on how to lower your risk factors for developing further gallstones.