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Release Date: 5/5/2014

Women twice as likely as men to have gallstones

Dr. Julie Weber, St. Anthony’s Medical Center

Dr. Julie Weber, St. Anthony’s Medical Center

When we talk about women’s health, the conversation usually focuses on the reproductive organs (for obvious reasons) or the heart. Makes sense, as heart disease is the number one killer of women.

But what about the gallbladder?

Your gall bladder is the small, pear-shaped organ under your liver that acts like a storage unit for bile. Bile, which is also known as gall, is the fluid your liver makes to help you digest fat. Much like your tonsils, while your gall bladder serves a purpose, your body can function just as well without it.

When that bile hardens in your gallbladder, it forms gallstones, which block your bile ducts. Doctors believe too much cholesterol, not enough bile salts, or the inability for the gallbladder to empty can cause gallstones.  Often called gallbladder attacks, gallbladder symptoms frequently happen at night without warning or after a high-fat meal. Symptoms include steady pain in the upper right side of your stomach, between your shoulder blades or under your right shoulder. The pain usually increases quickly and can last for several hours. If the blockage remains, your gallbladder can become infected and rupture.

Women are twice as likely as men to have gallstones. Extra estrogen from pregnancy, hormone replacement therapy, or birth control pills may raise cholesterol levels in bile and decrease gallbladder movement. Family history also plays a role, as does weight (weight gain or rapid weight loss) and diet, among other factors.

It’s up to you and your doctor to decide the best way to proceed. One option is to remove the gall bladder. You may know someone who had her gallbladder removed 20 or 30 years ago and was left with a long incision in the upper abdomen. Over the last couple decades, the standard of care for most surgeons has been to perform a laparoscopic procedure through four smaller incisions across the belly button and upper abdomen.  Recently, a new FDA approved procedure became available to perform the same surgery through a single incision.  Called the da Vinci method, it allows doctors to use a magnified 3D high-definition system to see the gall bladder and surrounding organs. The surgeon is able to remove your gallbladder through a single small incision in your belly button. Patients who choose this method experience virtually scarless results, with a lower rate of complications, less pain, and a quicker recovery time.

As we continue our country’s conversation about women’s health, we should include talk about gallbladder treatment. If you are considering gallbladder treatment that might include surgery, talk with your doctor about all the options, and consider what you feel is best for you.

Dr. Julie Weber is a St. Anthony’s Physician Organization surgeon who is part of a team of surgeons who practice at St. Louis Surgical Services.

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