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Gallstones: when in doubt . . .

MagazineFebruary 1997 (Vol. 7 Issue 11)Gallstones: when in doubt . . .

We know where they come from, we have a good idea what to do about many of them, yet gallstones are one of medicine's great travesties

We know where they come from, we have a good idea what to do about many of them, yet gallstones are one of medicine's great travesties. Nearly one in every seven adults or 20 million Americans suffers from attacks of gallstones every year, attacks in the main, due to diet. Nevertheless, the primary way that medicine goes about solving this problem is to chop out the gallbladder altogether. This is akin to curing a cold by removing your nose.

Increasingly, patients are being lured into having this operation (gallbladder operations are up by nearly one third) with the assurance that they need only have a keyhole operation. A tiny incision, a Band Aid over it, and they're back at work in a day. However, what doctors don't mention is the added risks of complications, including bile duct damage damage that can occur so far up the bile duct passage that it's impossible to fix.Mary, one of our readers, was one such victim, and is now in constant, horrific pain, making it impossible to swim, dance or even drive. "I feel as though someting has pierced my chest and is now 'digging' in my spine," she writes.

With such a seemingly easy solution, medicine tends to turn a blind eye to it's own role in causing this disease in the form of a variety of drugs taken over the long term. It's long been shown that estrogens, from the Pill or HRT, greatly increase a woman's chances of developing gallstones. But the most outrageous scandal of all is the role of cholesterol drugs in the development of gallstones. One such drug has been shown to cause gallstones in half of all patients. This means that in our zealotry to lower cholesterol we aren't eliminating it, but just shifting it around, from the blood to the gall bladder, where it unhealthily collects into stones. Patients with no symptoms of heart disease except a vaguely high cholesterol level (a dubious association, in any event) are being given a drug which ends up permanently damaging a useful organ and consigning it to the surgical scrap heap.

As with tonsils, doctors of the when in doubt, whip it out philosophy act as though the gall bladder is a superfluous organ.

No one stops to ask about the long term effects of removing the gall bladder. The gall bladder acts as a regulator of bile from the liver, increasing or decreasing it to suit, depending on your diet.

Without this handy little squeeze pump, bile trickles at an even flow from the liver into the gut. Patients who often aren't told to avoid fatty foods, once their gall bladder is removed, end up feeling ill every time they have an egg or a spot of cream.

More than three quarters of all gall bladders could be saved if people just stopped taking these sorts of drugs or modified their diet. It's essential that patients begin looking for the solution in the cause: what they put in their mouths.

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