As it usually is in matters of digestive health, the key is moderation. But is a skinny fry more to blame than a slice of cake in the formation of gallstones? Ms Sala Abdalla, our Consultant General and Upper Gastrointestinal Surgeon, explores the causes and treatments of gallstones and gallbladder issues and answers the weighty question: Do your gallstones really require surgery?
The gallbladder: your unsung ally in digestion
Let us start with understanding what a gallbladder is and the role it plays in digestion. Nestled beneath the liver, the gallbladder stores a vivid, greenish-yellow substance known as bile. This bile is produced by the liver and plays a fundamental role in digesting fats and breaking them down into manageable components that your body can absorb. Imagine your gallbladder as a culinary conductor, releasing the bile that it stores into the intestine, as and when needed, to ensure that your digestive system sings in pleasant harmony.
Recognizing the early signs and symptoms of gallstones
Your gallbladder might communicate with you through subtle signals. If you experience recurrent discomfort in your upper abdomen following a rendezvous with rich, fried foods, this could be your gallbladder's way of sparking a conversation. This pain, known as biliary colic, can last anywhere from a few minutes up to several hours. Nausea, an unexpected urge to throw up, and pain radiating to the right shoulder blade might be its bid for attention and more care. These early signs are worth listening to, as they could indicate that you might have cholelithiasis or gallstones, which are small formations that can disrupt your digestive health.
Causes and risk factors of gallstones
Gallstones, while sometimes diminutive, can cause substantial discomfort. Think of them as small-scale rock stars, but the kind you don't want headlining within. These formations arise due to an imbalance in the components of bile which include cholesterol, bilirubin, and bile salts. The result? Tiny, sometimes painful stones that could potentially require surgical intervention.
The risk factors for developing gallstones include being female, being overweight, high levels of cholesterol, a family history of gallbladder issues, rapid weight loss, diabetes and certain blood-related disorders such as Sickle Cell Disease. The risk of developing gallstones also increases with age.
So your fried food and sugary pleasures are not the only culprits, but they can certainly trigger gallbladder issues and gallstone formation.
The role of diet in gallbladder health
Did you know that certain dietary adjustments can play a significant role in keeping gallstones at bay? Incorporating an array of fibre-rich foods, steering clear of excessive fatty indulgences and foods rich in simple sugars (monosaccharides, disaccharides), staying hydrated and physically active can all contribute to a gallbladder that's singing with joy. While herbal remedies, such as dandelion root, milk thistle or apple cider vinegar, have been said to improve gallbladder health, there is no reliable scientific research evidencing tangible benefits. Moreover, we would like to stress that, before treating gallstones with natural or home remedies, it is imperative to first seek advice from a doctor as these ancient remedies could cause more harm than good in some patients.
Embracing challenges: do I need a surgery?
While gallstones are common, and more than 1 in 10 people in the UK will develop them, only about 20% will develop symptoms. If you are among the majority of people with asymptomatic or otherwise known as silent gallstones and have a normal gallbladder and biliary system, you are not likely to require treatment unless you experience symptoms.
In cases where complications arise or conservative, nonsurgical measures fall short, surgical intervention might be required. Your journey through your treatment at New Victoria Hospital, including a surgery, will be guided by an adept hand, ensuring your safety and well-being is met at every step of the way. Our skilled Consultant General Surgeons offer comprehensive assessments and will present you with tailored options. These may include laparoscopic ‘keyhole’ cholecystectomy, the most common of surgical approaches in the UK, which is a minimally invasive procedure where a tiny camera guides the removal of the gallbladder through small incisions.
Recovery: the path to wellness after gallbladder surgery
The road to recovery post gallbladder surgery is a swift one, particularly in cases of keyhole surgery. Most patients will be able to leave the Hospital on the same day or the subsequent morning. While mobility is encouraged during this phase, it’s prudent to steer clear of strenuous tasks like heavy-lifting and carrying for a minimum of six weeks to mitigate the potential for wound-related complications.
Embracing life without the gallbladder
While the gallbladder has a useful bile storage function, it is not an essential organ, and if it were damaged due to disease or gallstones, it would become largely redundant. Thus, often the safest solution can be its complete removal.
The good news is that your life's narrative can continue uninterrupted even after a farewell to your gallbladder! Your liver will still make enough bile to digest your food, ensuring your digestive processes carry on. While the journey is usually smooth, a small subset of individuals might encounter diarrhoea due to liberated bile flow into the intestine. Yet, these ailments tend to calm within weeks, and can be aided with a duo of medications and dietary adjustments.
Our expert team at New Victoria Hospital will assist you with treatments that promote gallbladder health, providing you with a path towards improved well-being.
If you are experiencing gallstone symptoms, you can book an appointment with one of our General Surgeons by calling us on 020 8949 9020 or completing our online form: