Gallstones are a pain in my back.
April 9, 2011 4:27 PM   Subscribe

Recently found out I have gallstones, and I have some degree of back/stomach pain every time I eat, no matter what I eat. YANMD, but what can I do about the pain?

Is there anything I can do to relieve some of the pain? It's not, I imagine, full-on gallbladder "attacks" that people describe (it hurts a whole hell of a lot, sometimes worse and sometimes better, but it's not something that's motivating me to go to the hospital). I've had the pain for a few years, but it's worsened in the past year. Last night it was so bad I was just in tears, and couldn't even enjoy hanging out with my significant other because I was feeling so bad.

NSAIDs don't do a damn thing (Aleve works for me for every pain except this). I already eat pretty low-fat, and I do notice that the pain is worse if I eat fattier foods, so I avoid them. My doc asked if I wanted to have the surgery, and I said I had to think about it, because I've read a lot of stories about people encountering even worse problems after their gallbladders are gone, and that seems very drastic if I can figure out some other way to manage the condition.

What I often do when I feel the pain is to drink water, lie down with a heating pad on my back, and go to sleep. This doesn't work if I have pain while I'm at work, obviously. What I'm looking for are some strategies for soothing/relieving the pain a little bit so that I can function better.
posted by so_gracefully to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Hmm, been a while now - see if I remember. Heatpad over the gallbladder area itself did work, and sitting/fetal position. I never took painkillers for gallstones, since well, its a big stone in the way, didn't seem right to try to mask it. Drinking water, and waiting it out...

Had my gallbladder out in 1999, 3.3cm stone. Best decision ever. I did put it off initially, until I had an attack the night before a very very important day, and I realised I could not keep having this random destroyer-of-days in my life. Both my parents had theirs out too. I couldn't eat spicy foods for about a year, now I have no restrictions at all, better than pre-op as onions and eggs will no longer floor me.

I think I wrote about it, here
posted by lundman at 4:35 PM on April 9, 2011

Getting my gallbladder removed was the very best decision I've ever made. I waited a year out of fear of side effects, and I wish I could have that year back.

For me, the deciding factor was when it kept getting worse and worse.
posted by Zophi at 4:38 PM on April 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm one of the only women in my family that still has their gallbladder, and it's only because I have no actual stones, and can manage the pain (of "sludge", ew) with diet. The pain, for me, is not acute, and I've only ever had one real gallbladder attack (which lead to the MRI that diagnosed the genetic malformation of my gallbladder that most likely is the reason no one in my family can keep theirs past 25).

Anyway blah blah blah, out of a sample size of 6 women in my family who've had it removed, not a single one regrets it, and not a single one has dietary restrictions after a year post-op.
posted by annathea at 4:44 PM on April 9, 2011

Sorry, I meant to post to address your actual question, which is what to do about the pain: for me, the triggers are starches, not fats, though in the clinical setting they were able to trigger an attack with an injection that apparently mimicked what it would be like if I ate an enormous cheeseburger (that's how the doctor described it. I've never had pain eating actual cheeseburgers).

Potatoes are entirely off the list, I can't eat them without pain. For my aunt, it was Coke. For my mom, it was cheese. Once, a banana triggered it for me, but I refuse to give those up, and I suspect that it was more stress than food that time.

Also, my first attack occurred during an immensely stressful work week. I definitely have worse issues when my stress levels are high.

So I guess my point is - start keeping track of what you eat and when you have pain so you can determine what foods trigger the response, that way you can at least have some idea of how to prevent it as much as possible. Try to keep your stress levels minimal. Hot baths have helped me a lot.
posted by annathea at 4:54 PM on April 9, 2011

I've seen several claims that gluten sensitivity is often related to gallbladder issues. (Note: I read a lot about gluten sensitivity, and there are people who claim it's related to everything. At this point, I'm rather inclined to believe them, and definitely think it's worth taking a couple weeks to try the elimination diet, but YMMV.)
posted by restless_nomad at 4:59 PM on April 9, 2011

I was diagnosed with gall stones about 6 years ago. The first ultrasound showed some sludge, one a couple of years later showed two pea-sized stones.

For me it's not fat but refined carbs in quantity that do the business. Eg, if I eat a lot cakes and pastries, I will start to ache. I have been reading some interesting things about the role of components of wheat flour in paralysing the marvellously named Sphincter of Oddi, which is what controls the flow of bile into the duodenum. I now consistently eat a fairly high fat, lower carb diet, and have not been troubled with gall bladder pain in over a year. Some advocates of higher fat diets claim that the increased flow of bile actually dissolves gall stones -- I don't believe this is an accepted theory, but it interests me. I have an irrational fear of surgery and am not currently suffering from pain so I am not motivated to have my gall bladder out.

Anyway, when I was having aches and pains from gallstones, I was prescribed Buscopan, which definitely helped.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:31 PM on April 9, 2011

Is there a reason you are avoiding surgery?

Reason I ask is that you really don't want to have it as an emergency. My mom wound up having to have the old fashioned kind of surgery that puts you out for six weeks because her gall bladder was going into gangrene. I on the other hand had a stuck stone, had to have my surgery RIGHT THEN whether it was convenient or not, but at least was able to have the laparoscopic kind.

The only other thing I can think of is definitely avoid fatty foods, period. Ice cream or fried chicken is almost a one way ticket to the operating room....

And as an anecdotal point, my mom, my husband and myself are all without gall bladders and honestly none of us seem to miss ours a bit. I have heard that some folk do have issues but there's a thread or two on this very site that has some excellent suggestions on taking care of that.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:52 PM on April 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

As others have noted, getting my gallbladder removed was the best thing I ever did, and I don't regret it at all. However, I took OTC ibuprofen and naproxen sodium for the pain. They helped, but only a bit. Avoiding fatty foods was about the only way to prevent the pain, and sometimes hot showers that focused the stream of water onto my back seemed to help.
posted by jessian at 6:11 PM on April 9, 2011

I had my gallbladder removed last year, after knowing I had stones for maybe four years? five? Anyway, the pain became nearly constant and given some other health issues I decided to go ahead with the surgery.

That said, are you able to make yourself burp? It sounds like a joke, I know, but when I had attacks I had a lot of bloating and found that belching eased the pain.

For the record, I'm one of those people who still gets occasional pain and other residual effects when I eat a fattier diet than usual and I'm still glad I had my gallbladder removed. I hadn't realized how detrimental the constant low-level discomfort I'd been experiencing for so long had been until it was gone.
posted by camyram at 6:44 PM on April 9, 2011

I haven't been bothered enough by my gallbladder to try this enough times to get a real read on whether it works, but when I was diagnosed the doctor told me that drinking a small amount of something very bitter (eg straight tonic water) could give the gallbladder a little kick and help it feel better for a while. I believe they said it would stimulate the bladder to make a little more gall.

I'm keeping mine for now, but if the pain is bringing you to tears I think you should reconsider whether it really is not all that severe. Anecdotes are just anecdotes, but I've heard many stories from folks who had their gallbladders out with few or no long term effects.
posted by crabintheocean at 7:46 PM on April 9, 2011

Response by poster: The only particular reasons I'm not jumping at the idea of surgery are: 1) all of the horrific things I read on message boards when I google "gallbladder removal", and 2) I just started a new job and have no sick leave. I'm researching the surgery though, because I'm at the point where I can see that the pain is significantly affecting my day to day life, and keeping me from enjoying things at times. I'm taking to heart what you've said about the surgery producing great results for you, and trying to weight those anecdotes equally with the ones I read before about people being very sick for years after surgery.

A few months ago, I tried 8 weeks without any grains or gluten, and no dairy, and there was no major change. I'm wondering about the carbs and other possible trigger foods, though, because I hadn't read anything about things other than classically "fatty" foods being possible triggers before. I'll try the food diary thing for a while. Right now I'm eating with the goal of being as close to Paleo as possible, trying to figure out how to balance the fats because it feels like even a small handful of almonds will trigger pain.

All your comments are helpful! Thank you!
posted by so_gracefully at 8:04 PM on April 9, 2011

Glad there are so many happy surgery stories out there. I have two close friends who had extremely bad results, both involving problems with the surgery rather than aftereffects. Any surgery carries with it some danger.

I've had two large gall stones for almost 20 years. (I know that because I needed an ultrasound to diagnose the extreme pain I was in.) The only option given to me by the doctor was surgery -- but there are options. The most important is to do what others are saying: notice what triggers an attack in your own personal gall bladder. In my case, I can eat anything as long as I don't wait too long between snacks. I also have to be extremely vigilant about drinking water regularly, and eating in ways that reduce the chance of constipation.

The other option is acupuncture. There are all levels of ability in acupuncturists (just like dentists or OB/GYNs), but a good one can do amazing things, not just in relieving pain but in helping to strengthen your system and reduce inflammation. Mine also strongly suggested I start drinking warm/hot water with lemon juice in it first thing in the morning, before anything else. Just a little lemon juice, half a cup of water -- as soon as I started doing that regularly I noticed a dramatic drop in incidents of pain.

If you want to try the lemon juice, the most efficient way to do it is buy lemons when they're cheap, juice them into an ice cube tray, and keep the cubes in the freezer. Keep a small jar with one or two melted cubes in the fridge to use every morning.

When I refused surgery, I asked the doctor if there were any signs that I should be alert to, indicating that something had gone wrong and I really needed the surgery. She smiled and said, "Oh, yes, you'll be writhing on the floor of the ER, begging us to take it out." I figured I could recognize that pretty easily, and since then I don't worry. For me it obviously involved the gall bladder getting extremely inflamed because the bile was not being released and so the bile got stronger and stronger. It did take awhile for everything to settle down, but I've been pain free, except for the occasional twinge, for many years now.

Good luck with your decision and with managing the pain during work. And thank god for heating pads!
posted by kestralwing at 9:47 PM on April 9, 2011

I was freaked the heck out when I was diagnosed and advised to get surgery.

Thing that made me feel better about gallbladder removal: The surgery is apparently easier and the incisions smaller if you haven't had attacks for years.

Three and a half years later, I can confirm that my aftereffects are minimal. Not absent, but utterly manageable. Really, the only issue I have is some trouble with a big ol' fatty breakfast if I've slept late on a Saturday, which can produce the dreaded bile dump effect. But this is only an issue when I spend twelve hours snoozing then eat a meal composed mostly of animal fat, like bacon and fried eggs.
posted by desuetude at 10:03 PM on April 9, 2011

I drink Gold Coin Grass tinctures. About a year ago I described the pain across my back to my then-with-gallbladder nurse cousin, who said, that I, like every other female member of my family, must have gallstones. I found the tincture recommended online, and bought it at my Chinese herb shop -- Jin Qian Cao -- and the should pain disappeared after my first cup.
posted by bwonder2 at 9:04 AM on April 10, 2011

My friend's response:

For me, there was little I could do to counter the pain other than taking some sort of painkiller, which didn't much help anyway. My mother advised leaning over our dining room table in a standing position, waist at the edge, and with your arms outstretched. She said it helped her and my niece, but it did not help me.

Nothing I noticed really served as a trigger. The attacks would just happen on their own. I could eat spicy food and be fine. I could eat fatty foods one night and be fine, but other nights have minor attacks. The points at which I had the major ones, I can't recall eating very much at all throughout the day, and they would last for up to ten hours. It's not a pleasant experience.

I had two bad attacks on consecutive nights this year, as well as last year. On both of these occasions, I went to hospital. I was refused treatment for being uninsured last year, but this year I was able to have it out. I'm still suffering some dull pain in the incision sites (the procedure was done laproscopically), but, I've experienced no "dumping," and my diet consists of about anything I want to eat. Your mileage may vary.

What concerns me, however, is that I had a stone lodged in my common bile duct, part of which is in the liver. This blockage was causing my liver to begin to fail. If you're jaundiced, go to hospital. The job will have to understand that you were faced with a life and death scenario, and you should by right be able to keep it.
posted by biochemist at 9:38 AM on April 10, 2011

I wouldn't get the surgery just yet. Here's a few thoughts:

1.) I would consider trying a daily healing tonic that might begin to soften those stones up and clear/tone up your liver & gallbladder. You can take 1 whole (unpeeled) large lemon and use an electric blender to blenderize it (1 to 2 minutes) with 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil and 12 oz. of water.

I know the olive oil is fat, but like the lemon it is known to have many cleansing, healing properties. You can start slower, even, by taking just a 1/4th or 1/2 of this mixture at first and build up to the whole thing. Take in the morning, and I'd wait 30 min. to an hour before eating anything else).

2.) Apple fast/diet. You don't really fast, you just eat apples every time you are hungry, for 3 days. You can google this, but it's really simple, even enjoyable; you can eat all kinds of fresh, crisp apples though certain varieties have more malic acid, like Granny Smiths; Red Delicious is a good choice, too. The malic acid will soften your stones, the pectin will cleanse your blood, the fiber begin to clear your digestive tract, and the simple diet will give your organs a rest. At the evening of the third day you can drink a bunch of olive oil that would release all that bile that has built up, and hopefully release stones--but if you don't feel safe doing this, I wouldn't. No need to rush. I would just take the above lemon tonic (the full amount) then eat a small healthy meal. Taking the full tonic every day, especially if you can build up to, say, 3 of them a day (spread throughout the day), will do it more gently. After you've received cleansing benefit from it for awhile and your body is more ready to handle it, you could decide whether you want to do the apple diet again with the olive oil flush at the end, or an overnight cleanse like this, or not.

You can research these basic ideas on the internet, but everyone has their own (usually overcomplicated!) versions of gallbladder cleansing. Some people like to use apple juice, for instance, though I would use raw fresh and prefer whole apples to drinking sugary fruit juice (but that's me). The basic idea, though, is the basic ingredients I've included here: apples, olive oil, lemons. They are old remedies.

You might just do the 3-day apple diet right now to give yourself some relief--there is no fat in apples, obviously, and it might give you 3 days of peace and time to think about what you want to do. It would also be a good prep for taking the above lemon/evoo tonic every day. And you can eat apples every day, too, as many as you can, and get a cumulative benefit. They will keep softening those stones. (I often throw in half an apple into the blender when making the lemon/evoo tonic.)

3.) Do you have regular bowel movements? If this isn't happening everyday, then you probably have an entire system that's backed up and that might be contributing to toxic overload. Find something to begin to clear out your digestive tract. (If you want ideas for this, feel free to mefimail me). Apples, lemon, olive oil will all help get things moving, too, and help generally to get your digestive system robust again.

4) A healthy diet. And only you can know what that is for you, right now, especially since your system is sensitive. But generally, true whole grains, unsalted nuts, seeds, green salads, raw fruits and veggies would likely be great and wouldn't contribute (in fact, the opposite) to gallstone-creating conditions like greasy, heavy foods can.

I have had years of crazy issues with digestive trouble, belly and back I can relate. These things have helped me. I hope you can find something that gets you on the path to healing without having to face surgery. Good luck!
posted by Thinkmontgolfier at 9:55 AM on April 10, 2011

My wife was having frequent attacks and had her gall bladder out a few years back. The surgery was done through three 1/4" incisions and she could have walked out the same day, except that she threw up and they kept her overnight. The openings healed with only imperceptible scars within a couple of weeks. She has to watch her fat intake (no pork belly), but otherwise she's great.

These days, the microsurgery is often done through the stomach, anus or vagina, which leaves no scars, even internally.
posted by KRS at 11:25 AM on April 10, 2011

I just wanted to emphasize that while there may be certain foods that are triggers now, I don't think it's useful to get to stuck in the paradigm that they just are. Your body is in crisis mode and just about any food might "trigger" the pain response form the intense stress your organs are experiencing. They sound like they want some rest!

Still, one has to eat. I think the trick is finding some simple foods that "trigger" the least while healing you so you can, in time, eat normally and freely again.

Again, good luck!
posted by Thinkmontgolfier at 12:08 PM on April 10, 2011

Before I had my gall bladder removed (best thing ever), I suffered real bad attacks. When the pain was too much, and nothing else helped, I would go to the ER and they would give me a shot of morphine. In the month before my surgery, I went at least 10 times. This may not be convenient or possible for you, but it worked for me.
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 5:44 AM on April 11, 2011

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