Below are three common medical approaches to treating gallstones:
- Removal of the gallbladder. Fortunately, today’s surgery, a procedure called laparascopic cholecystectomy, is easier on patients than the operation of the past, which involved making a large incision in the abdomen. Surgeons now make several small incisions through which they insert their instruments and a small video camera in order to view, detach and remove the gallbladder. Because no abdominal muscles are cut, there is less pain, faster recovery and fewer scars than with older methods. Most patients recover within days.
- Drugs. Uursodeoxycholic acid (Actigall) or chenodiol (Chenix) can both help dissolve gallstones, and may be used as an alternative to surgery. However, this treatment can take months, and stones can recur.
- Sound waves. This approach, called lithotripsy, involves the use of sound waves to break up gallstones. However, this procedure is considered appropriate only for patients who cannot undergo surgery. It works best on single stones that are less than two centimeters in diameter. Risks include pain and pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas, which can occur within a month of treatment. There is also the chance that not all of the stone fragments will pass through the bile duct out of the gallbladder, leaving patients at risk for potentially serious future problems.