I recently had a scan which showed up, to my surprise, that I have a gallstone. I have never had any symptoms or problems. Do I need to do anything about it?
The gall bladder is a pear-shaped gland that sits below the liver in the right side of the abdomen. It stores a substance called bile, which helps us digest fats in our diet. Gallstones form when liquid stored in the gallbladder hardens into pebble like material. They can vary in size from small bits of grit to as large as a golf ball. People may have one or several gallstones. Gallstones are very common and are thought to occur in 10 to 15pc of the adult population.
Women are twice as likely to develop gallstones as men. They are more common in those over 60. High oestrogen conditions such as pregnancy, the contraceptive pill or using HRT increase the risk. Obesity is a major risk factor for gallstones, as is a diet high in fat and low in fibre. Conversely, fasting and rapid weight loss can also increase the risk. Gallstones may run in families and are more common in those with diabetes.
When gallstones act up, they cause pain, usually in the upper abdomen. This may be felt in the back or in the shoulder also. These attacks often follow fatty meals. If there is a blockage or infection in the gallbladder the pain may last longer. There may be a fever, nausea and vomiting, pale-coloured stool and jaundice (yellowish colouring of the skin and eyes) may occur. These symptoms usually require admission to hospital.
Gallstones only require treatment if they are symptomatic. Despite the fact that so many people have gallstones, it is estimated that every year only about 1pc to 4pc of these will develop symptoms related to them. If you had the scan because of bouts of abdominal pain, then treatment may be warranted, but if your gallstones are not causing any symptoms, it is perfectly OK to let them be.