Most gallstones do not cause symptoms. It is estimated that between 10% and 20% of people over the age of 65 in the U.S. have gallstones. In the majority of cases, especially when the gallstones remain in the gallbladder, these stones cause no symptoms. As long as bile can continue to flow through its duct system, gallstones pose little danger. It is only when the gallstones cause obstructions or erode the gallbladder wall that they cause severe symptoms.
The characteristic symptom of gallstones is sudden, irregular episodes of moderate-to-intense pain in the upper abdomen, often radiating into the right shoulder blade. The pain often begins shortly after eating, and can last from 30 minutes up to several hours. This pain cannot be relieved by changing position or taking antacids, and it may fluctuate over time. The pain may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and tenderness near the gallbladder, which is located in the right upper part of the abdomen.
Symptoms of gallstones may also include fever, yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice), clay-colored stools, or coffee-colored urine. If you experience these symptoms, seek emergency medical care immediately. These symptoms indicate that you may have a blocked duct and/or infection. Left untreated, such a blockage can be life-threatening.
Gallstones tend to run in families. Although the genetics are not well-understood, inheritance plays some role in development of gallstones.
Women have a higher risk of developing gallstones than do men. Estrogen increases secretion of cholesterol in the bile and increases the risk of developing gallstones. Use of oral contraceptives, hormone replacement therapy, and pregnancy all elevate estrogen levels and increase the risk of gallstones. After menopause, estrogen production decreases, and a woman's risk of developing gallstones becomes similar to that of a man of the same age.
The risk of developing gallstones increases with age. Before adolescence, gallstones are rare. As a person ages, the risk of developing gallstones increases. Approximately 10% to 15% of men and 25% to 30% of women will develop gallstones by age 70.
Body weight and diet are risk factors for developing gallstones. Obesity greatly increases a person's risk of developing gallstones, primarily by increasing the amount of cholesterol excreted in the bile. A diet high in fat and sugar also increases the risk for gallstones. Fasting or other rapid weight loss diets may reduce the frequency with which the gallbladder is emptied, increasing the risk for developing gallstones.
Gallstones are more common in certain ethnic groups. For reasons that are not well-understood, certain ethnic groups have a higher risk for developing gallstones. Native Americans and Mexican-Americans are two groups with higher-than-normal risk.
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