Diabetes can be linked to several health conditions, including gallstones or gallbladder problems. If you have diabetes, it’s vital to understand what may cause gallstones, the gallstone diagnosis and treatment process, and how you can lower your risk of developing it.
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The gallbladder is an organ located under your liver that stores bile secreted by your liver. This bile is released into your intestine to assist digestion. Its ability to properly store bile is an essential function of this organ.
However, the bile sometimes hardens, making it difficult for the gallbladder to facilitate adequate flow into your intestine. This hardened bile, called gallstones, is the most common gallbladder problem you may experience.
Your gallbladder is filled with bile, a digestive fluid that breaks down fats and removes excess cholesterol and bilirubin. This liquid bile can occasionally harden, transforming into solid deposits called gallstones that may accumulate in your gallbladder, causing additional complications.
Gallstones that do not cause a bile duct obstruction, called silent gallstones¹, will not have any symptoms and do not need treatment. Those obstructing your bile duct frequently result in sudden, sharp abdominal pain.
This pain is generally focused in the upper right of your abdomen, near the location of your gallbladder. However, you may also experience pain in the center of the abdomen, right shoulder, or back.
Gallbladder problems often include severe abdominal pain caused by gallstone blockages, but gallbladder issues can also manifest in other ways.
Some of the symptoms most frequently associated with gallbladder problems² include:
Fever or chills
Frequent belching, gas, or other indigestion problems
While these symptoms are common indicators of gallbladder problems, determining the exact cause requires several tests to eliminate other possible health issues before a treatment protocol is recommended.
The severe pain that gallstones cause may seem problematic enough, but gallstones or other gallbladder problems that are left untreated can lead to several complications³. Gallstones may cause dangerous health concerns, including:
Ascending cholangitis (an infection of the common bile duct)
Pancreatitis (or inflammation of the pancreas)
Gangrenous cholecystitis (gangrene of the gallbladder)
Gallstone ileus (bowel obstruction)
Should these conditions arise due to untreated gallstones, medical attention will be necessary.
Most gallstones diagnosis begin with related pain symptoms, but they can also be found by chance while testing for other conditions. Some of the specific tests⁴ that may be used to detect gallstones include:
Computed tomography scan (CT scan or CAT scan)
Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCPs)
Your health history will also be an essential consideration when interpreting the results of any of these tests.
Your specific treatment options will generally vary based on your particular condition. Certain medications may help dissolve your gallstones, but surgical removal may also be recommended if your gallstones recur or are severe.
Gallstones are typically associated with increased production of bilirubin and high cholesterol levels but are rarely linked to one specific risk factor. However, they tend to be more common among certain demographic groups, people with pre-existing medical conditions, or specific lifestyle choices.
You may also develop gallstones if your gallbladder is unable to empty properly. Your overall risk of developing gallstones can be even higher if you fall into more than one of these underlying categories.
Anyone can develop gallstones, but certain demographic groups tend to receive this diagnosis more often and experience more significant complications.
Notably, Native Americans develop gallstones more commonly than other ethnicities because of the increased likelihood of an accumulation of cholesterol in their gallbladders. Women are approximately twice as likely to develop gallstones as men, and people over the age of 60 are typically more likely to develop gallstones than younger adults.
Various lifestyle choices can also make you more likely to develop gallstones. For example, rapid weight loss or prolonged fasting may lead to gallstones as both physical experiences increase the cholesterol build-up in your gallbladder.
Certain types of medications partially linked to lifestyle choices, such as birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy, increase cholesterol in your gallbladder and decrease bile movement. These treatments may also increase your risk of developing gallstones.
Certain pre-existing medical conditions may make you more likely to develop gallstones, especially those related to your diet. Diabetes can be considered a common risk factor for developing gallstones.
People with diabetes may be at a higher risk of developing gallstones because they frequently have higher triglycerides levels. Triglycerides are a form of fat that accumulates in the blood, which can also lead to gallstones and other gallbladder problems.
Obesity is another major risk factor that may make you more susceptible. Obesity is frequently linked to diabetes, and having both conditions may compound your likelihood of forming gallstones.
The cholesterol ends up in your bile to be digested, temporarily increasing its presence in the gallbladder before it is moved out of your body, thus making you more susceptible to developing gallstones while on medication. In this scenario, living with high cholesterol or treating it can be risk factors for developing gallstones.
While gallstones and other gallbladder problems linked to diabetes may not always be preventable, you can lower your risk by taking specific actions. These steps are also relevant to preventing some of the most common problems caused by diabetes.
However, it is essential to remember that every diabetes case is different. Working closely with your doctor to determine what steps you need to take to manage your unique situation is necessary.
The first step to avoiding gallstones and other health concerns associated with diabetes is working with your doctor to design a management plan to control your symptoms and improve overall health. This management plan should address practical ways to minimize the impact of diabetes symptoms while improving your diet and exercise levels.
Diet and exercise needs can vary significantly from person to person, depending on the type of diabetes you have, the severity of your diabetes, and your overall health. Understanding the best plan that addresses your health condition is an essential step in preventing diabetes from causing subsequent health concerns.
Knowing what type of medication you should be taking, how much you need, and when to take it are imperative to keep your diabetes under control. Sticking to your schedule and remembering to take your medicine daily is crucial to ensuring an effective treatment protocol.
Keeping track of your blood sugar levels is already an essential step in managing diabetes. Testing sugar levels is also critical to identify potential problems before they become more significant. You are more likely to develop gallstones when your blood sugar levels are higher than they should be.
Symptoms & causes of gallstones | NIH: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
Gallstones | Johns Hopkins Medicine
Complications of gallstones (2006)
Diagnosis of gallstones | NIH: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
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