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Don’t Ignore Pain in Your Abdomen: It Might Be Gallstones

May 22, 2023

If you’re experiencing anything from mild discomfort to sharp pain in the upper right side of your abdomen, don’t ignore it.

One of the most common surgeries in America, a cholecystectomy – or removal of the gallbladder -- starts with those easy-to-overlook symptoms, which can rapidly intensify.

The sooner gallstones are treated, the less your risk complications. So it’s important to learn the symptoms to be prepared.

Symptoms of Gallstones

One of the reasons it can be hard to know you’re dealing with gallstones is that you may experience anything from mild discomfort to sharp pain. Symptomatic cholelithiasis is the medical term for gallstones. When stones first form, they may be accompanied by minor symptoms, such as indigestion or gas.

Here’s what to look for:

  • Pain on your right side, under the liver in an area called the upper right quadrant
  • Pain that often occurs after eating fried or fatty food
  • Nausea and vomiting after you eat

Gallstones can form for several reasons, including genetics, obesity, how well hydrated you are and diet choices -- such as too many fattening or fried foods.

The pain typically comes and goes. But if you have one painful episode, you’re likely to have more. At this stage, you should talk to your doctor. Making simple diet and lifestyle changes to prevent the gallstones from progressing could be enough to eliminate the pain.

Lifestyle Changes To Avoid Gallstones

Start with Your Diet. Avoid fried, fatty foods as much as possible. Diet changes to lessen the symptoms of gallstones also include:

  • Increase the amount of fiber
  • Reduce refined carbohydrates
  • Cut back on sugar
  • Eat healthy fats, such as olive oil, to help your gallbladder contract and regularly empty itself

Maintain a Healthy Weight. Excess weight increases the risk of gallstones, so doctors recommend losing enough pounds so your weight falls within a healthy range. This may include talking with a nutritionist to develop a plan specific to your needs.

If you make these lifestyle changes and still have abdominal pain, it’s time to talk to your doctor about surgery.

What if Gallbladder Is Infected?

Pain in your abdomen shouldn’t be ignored, which can cause stones to progress to the next stage, known as acute cholecystitis. This stage has the same symptoms as the earlier stage symptomatic gallstones, only now you will likely also experience fevers, vomiting that does not resolve and pain that does not stop within a few hours, which could signal an infection.

At this point, antibiotics and surgery may be necessary, and you need to head to your closest ER. An ultrasound and possibly additional imaging will help your doctor assess your condition. Your doctor may also test your white cell count, a marker of infection.

If you need surgery, don’t delay. Putting it off might result in:

  • A longer hospital stay
  • Risk of developing sepsis, which could be fatal
  • Risk of gangrene, which can lead to serious complications
  • Not getting proper nutrition if you have prolonged nausea and vomiting

When You Need Surgery

If surgery is required, it is almost always performed minimally invasive with either laparoscopy or newer robotic surgery. Surgery is performed through a few small incisions. Using these methods, patients recover fast and with minimal pain.

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