Common ailments

Gallstones

I am a 47 year old woman and for the past six months I have been suffering on and off with what is often an excruciating pain below rib cage area on the right side of my abdomen. I visited my GP a few months ago and was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome for which I’ve been taking medication, but I’m still experiencing pain. Sometimes, it’s so bad that it makes me vomit. Could something else be causing this?

I’m sorry to hear you’ve been suffering with this pain for so long. Although irritable bowel syndrome can cause intermittent pain, there is another possible reason for your pain. It could be that you have developed gallstones or a problem with your gallbladder. Your gallbladder sits below the liver in the upper right hand corner of the abdomen. Its purpose is to store bile, a liquid produced by the liver that helps to digest fat. Problems can begin when some of the components which make up bile form hard crystals (or gallstones). These gallstones can be as small as a grain of stand or as large as a golf ball. As a result, your gallbladder can hold anywhere between one and hundreds of gallstones.

Gallstones can cause problems like those you describe and in other cases may cause no problems at all. Whilst it isn’t certain what causes gallstones, people with high levels of cholesterol in their bile are more likely to develop them.

The abdominal pain you describe is a typical first sign of gallstones. In some cases, pain is sometimes accompanied by sweating, a fever or vomiting and the pain often increases quickly and can last for several hours. Other symptoms can include pain under the right shoulder, bloating, indigestion, clay-coloured stools, and recurring intolerance of fatty foods.

I would recommend you re-visit your GP who can discuss your symptoms with you in more detail and may carry out an examination to determine whether your gallbladder is inflamed. They may also recommend a blood test to check that your liver is working normally. If you have gallstones and they have moved into your bile duct, the normal functioning of your liver would be disrupted.

If your symptoms or any test results indicate that you may have gallstones, your GP will possibly refer you for an ultrasound test to confirm that gallstones are in fact present and to look for any other causes of this pain. Treatment would depend on the severity of your symptoms. If your symptoms are considered to be severe and affect your daily life then gallbladder removal surgery will usually be recommended. The gallbladder is not an essential organ and most people would notice little difference without it.

 

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