Gallstones: Symptoms, Causes, Treatments and How Eastern Medicine Can Help
Gallstones are extremely common in developed, mostly western countries. It’s estimated that around 6 percent of men and 9 percent of women have gallstones in the U.S., likely driven by a combination of genetic and lifestyle factors – with diet foremost among them. A cholesterol-rich Western diet, for example, accelerates stone growth because about 75 percent of all stones are caused by cholesterol deposits.
For the majority of these people, their gallstones are asymptomatic. In other words, they don’t cause pain or any other symptoms. Occasionally, though, gallstones can cause complications, including severe complications that merit emergency treatment. This is typically the case when stones block bile from flowing out of the gallbladder or bile ducts.
When a patient does present with gallstone-related complications, there are a few treatment options that doctors can deploy. Some of these are western, allopathic treatments that people associate with mainstream medicine. There are also eastern, osteopathic modalities that can also help – without the need for medication or surgery.
Gallstone presentation and treatment is highly individual to the patient. As such, it’s always important to consult with a trusted physician before deciding on the right course of treatment.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Gallstone Complications?
The majority of people with gallstones will never experience symptoms. They may live their entire life without ever knowing that they have one (or more, as some patients form many gallstones).
However, if a gallstone does cause an attack, the symptoms may include:
- Acute, intensifying pain in the upper right or center part of the abdomen. In some cases, this pain may be mistaken for cardiac problems, which often present with chest pain.
- Back pain, usually centered between the shoulder blades. Pain in the right shoulder may also be present.
- Nausea or vomiting.
Some patients may only experience one or a few gallbladder attacks during their life, but once someone has an attack, they’re more likely to develop future attacks. When gallbladder attacks and their symptoms become a regular concern, the patient may be diagnosed with biliary colic. Unlike the standard presentation of colic, though, biliary colic tends to produce enduring, dull pain instead of acute, sharp pain – though biliary colic can certainly produce intense pain.
Serious Complications May Arise from Gallstones if They Aren’t Treated
If gallstones do not obstruct the flow of bile out of the gallbladder or bile ducts, serious complications are rare. However, if there is a stone-related obstruction, severe medical issues may arise that demand emergency attention. Those complications include:
- Cholecystitis – Cholecystitis is the medical term for gallbladder inflammation and swelling. It occurs when bile is trapped in the gallbladder, usually the result of a solid stone blockage. Other causes include scarring or viral infections.Cholecystitis produces severe pain in patients. Also, with time, the gallbladder will be more prone to infection. Additional symptoms include nausea, vomiting, abdominal tenderness, fever, chills, and jaundice. Pain is usually worse after eating a fat-rich meal.
- Choledocholithiasis – When a gallstone descends into the common bile duct, it’s termed choledocholithiasis. The common bile duct is where liver and gallbladder bile ducts join up, so it’s the primary bile highway.Gallstones in the common bile duct don’t always cause symptoms. When they do, those symptoms include abdominal pain, fever, nausea, and jaundice.
- Gallstone pancreatitis – The pancreas also shares the common bile duct with the gallbladder and liver. As such, if the common bile duct is blocked, it can also cause pancreatic secretions to become blocked and back up into the pancreas.When this occurs, the resulting pain, inflammation and organ damage can be severe. Notably, the most common reason for nonalcoholic pancreatitis is a gallstone blockage.
As you can see, the condition is determined by where the stone blockage occurs. In each case, though, treatment recommendations are similar.
How Gallstones are Treated – the Western Approach
Western allopathic medicine has an established treatment course for gallstones. In the vast majority of cases, surgery is the primary option, either to remove gallstones or the gallbladder itself. Even if gallstones are successfully removed, most doctors will recommend a cholecystectomy (gallbladder removal) to protect from future gallstones and related issues.
Surgery is typically minimally invasive. In some cases, a laparoscopic procedure may be all that’s necessary. In rare instances, open surgery may be required. In every instance, antibiotics are included to protect from infection and potential post-surgical complications (like pancreatitis).
In patients where gallstones are small and symptoms are minimal, ursodiol may be prescribed. This medication is used to slowly dissolve gallstones, removing the need for surgery. However, the process can take an extremely long time – years in some instances. And during this time, the patient will be required to follow up frequently. It may be an option for people who need to avoid surgery at all costs, but ursodiol can be prohibitive in terms of ongoing commitment.
How Gallstones are Treated Using an Eastern Medical Approach
Eastern medicine practitioners rely on acupuncture and herbal therapies to treat patients with gallbladder problems. Here’s how each can help:
- Acupuncture – Acupuncture is used in an impressive array of pain-causing conditions, including muscle pain, back pain, headaches, and abdominal pain.And though more research is needed, early studies suggest that acupuncture may also be effective in gallbladder pain. One study, which considered 60 cholecystitis patients, found that acupuncture could reduce pain and spasms associated with the condition. Also, acupuncture was shown to reduce the gallbladder’s volume, indicating effectiveness against inflammation.
- Herbal therapy – Herbal therapies are another fixture in eastern medicine. One in particular – Wen Dan Tang – has been in use since the 8th century as a form of GI and gallbladder relief.Wen Dan Tang consists of pinellia, poria, bamboo, citrus peel, ginger, licorice and a few other botanicals. It’s earned widespread respect among practitioners as an anti-phlegm formula. In this context, phlegm conditions are those caused by a buildup of toxic material in the body, including backed up bile and stones. Wen Dan Tang helps re-establish proper movement in the gallbladder and stimulates better bile flow.
Together, these Chinese therapies can treat the symptoms of gallbladder attacks, as well as the underlying, system-level issues interfering with efficient gallbladder function.
Gallstone Complications Can Be Debilitating, But Eastern Medical Treatments Can Make a Difference
Living with gallbladder attacks, biliary colic, cholecystitis, and similar conditions can be extremely difficult. So difficult that many patients seek surgical options for relief.
For patients who cannot undergo surgery, or those who choose not to, alternative treatments like acupuncture and herbal therapy can provide support. It’s important, though, that patients choose a Houston TX licensed eastern medicine practitioner to deliver treatment. A Houston TX licensed practitioner is trained in the safe, effective delivery of Chinese medicine, so they can either deploy eastern medicine as a primary form of treatment or use it to support a broader course of treatment.