Though gallstones are common among Americans, women are more likely to get them than men. Nearly one in five American women get gallstones before they turn 60 years old. Though some risk factors for gallstones are unavoidable, understanding the symptoms and living a healthier lifestyle can help reduce your risk of developing them and other complications. Here are five frequently asked questions about gallstones:

How do gallstones form?

Gallstones are hard, pebble-like pieces of cholesterol that form in your gallbladder. They form when liquid bile fluid turns into solid stones in your gallbladder. “While most gallstones are small and do not cause any issues, others are big enough to get stuck in your biliary tract when it tries to pass through your gallbladder,” says Fooroogh Ostovari, MD, a primary care physician with Adventist Medical Group. “Larger stones like these can cause serious complications if left untreated.”

Why are women more likely to get gallstones?

“Women are at higher risk of developing gallstones, especially those with higher estrogen levels from pregnancy, hormonal birth control or hormone replacement therapy,” says Dr. Ostovari. “Research suggests that estrogen triggers your body to release more cholesterol, which can harden to form these stones.” You may also be at higher risk for developing gallstones if you are:

  • 40 years old or older
  • Overweight
  • Eat a diet high in fat and cholesterol
  • Related to someone else with gallstones
  • Pregnant
  • Diabetic
  • Experiencing rapid weight loss
  • Native American or Hispanic/Latino
Which symptoms should I look out for?

Most people with gallstones do not experience any symptoms. However, if your gallstones are large enough to cause a blockage in your ducts you may experience a gallbladder attack. A gallbladder attack could last for a few minutes or several hours. Symptoms of an attack could include:

  • Sudden pain in your upper-right abdominal area
  • Back pain between your shoulders
  • Nausea or vomiting

If you develop yellow discoloration in your eyes, a high fever or intense abdominal pain, your symptoms may indicate a more serious complication and you should see a doctor right away.

How are gallstones diagnosed and treated?

If you don’t have any symptoms, you typically will not need treatment. If you do develop symptoms, your doctor may request an imaging exam to confirm your diagnosis. Ultrasounds and  CT scans can create images of your gallbladder and biliary ducts that can be helpful in identifying infections, blockages and other complications. Depending on the results, your physician may recommend treatment to dissolve the stones or stop them from forming. Usually, surgery to remove your gallbladder is recommended if you experience severe symptoms or have frequent gallbladder attacks. “The gallbladder is not an organ you need to survive,” says Dr. Ostovari. “Removing the gallbladder will eliminate the issue while often leaving little to no negative side effects.”

What steps can I take to prevent gallstones?

The first step to preventing gallstones is eating a healthier diet. Try to eat foods that are high in fiber, such as beans, peas, brown rice and whole-wheat bread. This will aid in smooth digestion and curb obesity. Also, avoid eating foods that are high in saturated fat, such as fried foods. It’s also important to exercise regularly to maintain a healthy weight. If you are overweight, Dr. Ostovari suggests losing weight gradually. “When you lose weight too fast, this can prevent your gallbladder from emptying regularly which can lead to gallstones,” Dr. Ostovari says. “To prevent this, avoid crash diets and other extreme weight-loss measures.”

Sources: National Institutes of Health, American College of Gastroenterology, Journal of Lipid Research

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