When a tummy ache is more than just ‘gas’
Pain is not something new to Jane Doe (name changed). The 41-year-old had already experienced numerous medical scares in her life so the sporadic pain she felt in her stomach almost five years ago did not phase her. It was only when she was due for another medical check-up and had to undergo a Computer Tomography (CT) scan was she informed her little tummy ache was actually caused by gallstones – crystallized formations that can vary in size from a grain of sand to as large as a golf ball that collect in the gall bladder.
Gallstones are formations in the gall bladder made up of collections of cholesterol and other substances in the body. They aren’t necessarily dangerous but they can lead to much discomfort and other health issues depending on how the stones pass through the body. There are no clear cut reasons as to why they develop, but many factors are associated with their formation. They tend to occur in people over age 40, mostly in pre-menopausal females as opposed to males. Being overweight, one’s genetics and regularity of exercise can also contribute to why they can develop.
“At the time I didn’t even think it was too serious,” said Doe who has also battled and for now is winning over breast cancer. “It was something I could live with, after all it wasn’t bothering me all too much,” she says. “In fact like any typical Bahamian when it comes to pains in your stomach, I thought that it was just gas. And since I was going through other medical issues taking care of that problem was the last thing on my mind. It was only within the last two years that the gallstones have gotten significantly worse and the pain became severe that I knew I had to do something.”
Doe was presented with a few options as to how to deal with her problem, such as herbal remedies or to have a surgery to remove the stones. She chose to have her entire gall bladder removed to avoid the problem ever occurring again. The gallbladder is a small organ that aids mainly in fat digestion and secretes bile produced by the liver. In humans, the loss of the gallbladder is usually easily tolerated.
Two weeks after having her gallbladder removed laproscopically, Doe says she can already feel the difference and is glad she made the decision to live without pain.
“The only thing that concerns me a little is that I now have to change my eating habits. Since I don’t have my gallbladder anymore, which makes the gastric fluid that breaks down fats, I can’t eat as much of my favorite fatty or spicy foods like peas and rice, macaroni and fried chicken. Although it is a loss I do think it was for the best because with conditions like this had I been eating a lot healthier it may not have occurred. Now I have a serious reason to stay on the straight and narrow with my health and it will be a good thing in years to come.”
While Jane Doe is relieved, Dr. Ian Kelly, a general practitioner operating from 72 Collins Avenue, says although gallstones are often not seen as a dangerous medical condition, if not treated properly, they can lead to other health related issues like infections to the pancreas or the gall bladder, and can lead to jaundice if the bile isn’t filtered properly.
Although intense pain is often associated with gallstones, not everyone who develops them will have symptoms. The doctor said some people can go for years without knowing about the stones because the pain is non-existent. For others, the pain is so minor they don’t opt to have them removed at all.
“The removal of gallstones is one of the most common surgeries done and for many people it happens when they face complications due to their gallstones,” says Dr. Kelly. “The pain people feel comes from the stones trying to pass through the ducts. These stones tend to be smaller [less than eight millimeters] and can successfully pass out of the system on their own, but the larger ones can get stuck, and if they cause blockage in the gallbladder they can cause an intense pain in the upper right side of the abdomen. It can last for a while or pass quickly.”
The most pain can occur after a fatty meal. Bloating, gas, indigestion and belching are also common signs of gallstones. But it is important to get correctly diagnosed by a physician.
When the pain becomes too much or patients show signs of an infection in the gallbladder or pancreas they may be recommended for alternative medications or to a surgeon to have a surgery.
“There are several ways to deal with gallstones. There are medications that can help them pass and of course there are surgeries to remove the gallstones – or if it’s really serious the entire gallbladder may have to be removed. But before you make any serious decisions you will need to speak with your physician or a surgeon,” says Dr. Kelly.