The gallbladder, along with the liver and pancreas, is a member of the biliary system that aids in digestion through the production of bile and digestive enzymes. Bile is a fluid manufactured by the liver to aid in the digestion of high cholesterol foods and fats. The gallbladder is located in the upper right section of the abdomen, just under the liver. It is connected to the small intestine by a tube like structure called the common bile duct. The gallbladder stores the bile produced by the liver until it is required for digestion. When that happens, the organ contracts and empties the bile into the small intestine through the common bile duct.
Along with other substances, bile contains cholesterol and a liver waste product known as billrubin. If the amount of either of these substances is too high, solid particles begin to form. These particles are called gallstones. When the amount of cholesterol is excessive, cholesterol stones are formed. If there is too much billrubin, pigment stones are formed. Cholesterol stones are the most common. Eighty percent of gallstone patients in the United States have cholesterol stones. Any number of stones may form in any combination of sizes. These stones can remain in the gall bladder and cause no problems.
However if the stones are big or if they are present in a large quantity, they may cause pain. If the stones start to move out of the gallbladder, they can also cause problems. It is possible for the movement to block one of the ducts that connect the small intestine to the gallbladder, the pancreas, or the liver. This can trap the bile within the duct and cause inflammation resulting in infection and organ damage. It is estimated that twenty percent of American adults have gallstones but symptoms develop in only two or three percent.
Among ethnic groups, Caucasians, Hispanic and Native Americans are at the highest risk for developing gallstones. The risk factor is much lower for African Americans. Gender also plays a role, as the risk factor is higher for women than men. Being overweight increases the likelihood of developing gallstones. But people trying to lose weight are at risk if they are losing too quickly as the result of a crash diet. If men do develop gallstones, they are more likely to experience complications. And complications are more prevalent among elderly patients. Certain medications such as birth control pills and cholesterol lowering drugs increase the risk as well.
A common symptom of gallstones is abdominal pain within an hour of consuming a fatty meal. The pain may spread to the right shoulder and between the shoulder blades. Other symptoms are chronic indigestion and gas. Individuals experiencing these on a regular basis should schedule an appointment with their primary care physician. But if the pain is accompanied by vomiting, fever, chills, and sweats or if jaundice is present they should report to the hospital emergency room immediately. Scientists aren't totally sure what role diet plays in the development of gallstones but they do know that high cholesterol blood levels increase the risk so it is reasonable to assume that people can lower that risk by following a diet that is low in cholesterol.
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