Gallstones are solid crystal deposits that form in the gallbladder, a pear-shaped organ that stores bile until it is needed to help digest fatty foods. These crystals can migrate to other parts of the digestive tract, causing severe pain and life-threatening complications. Gallstones vary in size and chemical structure. They may be as tiny as a grain of sand, or as large as a golf ball.
Gallstones usually develop in adults between the ages of 20 and 50. The risk of developing gallstones increases with age. Young women are up to six times more likely to develop gallstones than men in the same age group. In patients over 50, however, the condition affects men and women with equal frequency. Native Americans develop gallstones more often than any other segment of the population, and Mexican Americans have the second highest incidence of this disease. Gallstones tend to be passed down genetically in families.
Eighty percent of gallstones are composed of cholesterol. They are formed when the liver produces more cholesterol than the digestive juices can liquefy. The remaining 20% of gallstones are composed of calcium and an orange-yellow waste product called bilirubin, which gives urine its characteristic color and sometimes causes jaundice.
People who have gallstones may remain without symptoms for an extended period, especially if the stones remain in the gallbladder. In most cases, medical treatment is only deemed necessary if the individual is experiencing symptoms. When symptoms do appear, it is usually because the stones have left the gallbladder and are stuck somewhere else within the biliary system, blocking the flow of bile. If gallstones remain stuck in the biliary system, there can be damage to the liver, pancreas, or the gallbladder itself.
Gallstones bring on several disorders including:
Cholelithiasis: Gallstones within the gallbladder itself. Pain is caused by the contractions of the gallbladder around the stone.
Choledocholithiasis: The presence of gallstones within the common bile duct, which is the passage between that empties into the small intestine. Once discovered, common duct stones need to be removed in order to avoid further problems.
Cholecystitis: A disorder marked by inflammation of the gallbladder. It is usually caused by the passage of a stone from the gallbladder into the cystic duct, which connects the gallbladder to the common bile duct. Cholecystitis causes painful enlargement of the gallbladder and is responsible for 10–25% of all gallbladder surgery.
Patience Paradox, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit,