Back in September last year I started getting some back pain. It was the week after the MAD Blog Awards ceremony, and my first thought was that I’d overdone it with the dance routine I was involved with for that event. I have to be a bit careful with my back – it lets me know quite quickly if I’ve sat in the wrong position for too long, so I shrugged this pain off as something like that, took some Ibuprofen and used a hot water bottle to keep the pain under control.
A week later I was still in more pain than I thought I should be, and it felt bad enough that I went to see my GP. It was around my right shoulder blade, and I expected my GP to simply prescribe some stronger painkillers and send me on my way. But he didn’t. He did a pretty thorough examination, including checking my tummy as well as my back. He then went on to grill me to see if I could possibly be pregnant, before explaining the the kind of back pain I was experiencing usually meant either an ectopic pregnancy (which I assured him it definitely wasn’t!) or gallstones.
For the next week or so he tried me with stronger painkillers, and things seemed to just get worse, ending up with my having pain both under my right shoulder blade at the back and under my right rib at the front. A couple of nights the only way I could sleep was to have two hot water bottles, one pressed to each area! Eventually when it was clear the painkillers weren’t doing the job my GP referred me for an ultrasound scan to see if there was any sign of gallstones. Thankfully about a week later the pain completely subsided, and I’d almost forgotten about it when the appointment for my scan came through. I trotted off to the hospital, when the cheerful scan operator told me that I definitely had gallstones, which would explain the pain I had been in. It was quite a relief to have confirmation that there was a reason for it all.
I returned to the GP for the results, and he went through everything with me. Apparently I tick all the boxes for having a higher risk of gallstones – I am overweight, female, fair-skinned, over 40 and have had children. The GP advised that in many cases gallstone pain can be controlled by a change of diet, and said I should try eating a low fat diet. I was a little unsure that this would help – I had tried changing my diet during the bout of pain and it hadn’t seemed to help at all – but I gave it a go.
A few weeks later I had another attack of severe pain. Again it lasted about 2 weeks, and again I tried giving up different foods during that period but nothing helped. Again the hot water bottles and the strong painkillers were barely keeping the pain under control, and I ended up at my GP’s surgery again, seeing a different doctor this time. This second doctor took a totally different attitude, and said that in his experience one you start getting gallstone pain it keeps coming back, even if you change your diet, and the best thing to do would be to have my gallbladder surgically removed. At this point I would have done pretty much anything to make the pain go away, and so I asked to be referred for surgery.
Gallbladder surgery is actually pretty straightforward, and a large number of people have their gallbladders removed each year. Once I started talking about this on Facebook I was surprised how many of my friends came forward to say they’d had it done, and every single one of them went on to say how it was the best thing they’ve ever done and how much better they are without it. Whilst the gallbladder does perform a function in our digestive system, our bodies can manage without it.
The only slight complication with gallbladder surgery is that whilst in 19 out of 20 cases it can be done keyhole, sometimes it has to be done with a full surgery, and the surgeon can’t tell which you’ll be until he starts. So you have to sign consent for both operations, and will only find out which one you had when you come around.
It was whilst I was waiting for surgery that I had my worst attack of pain, which was also the first one where I could see a clear link between the food I had eaten and the pain. On Boxing Day we went out for a big family meal, and I went a little mad on the fatty foods – chicken in a creamy Stilton sauce followed by treacle sponge with custard. Well, that afternoon I started feeling sicker and sicker. My first thought was that perhaps it was food poisoning, but when I eventually was sick the gallstone pain started up really intensely. My poor husband found me curled up on the floor in the foetal position, just moaning. Unlike my previous attacks, this one lasted just overnight, and I got back to normal very quickly.
After a little more trial and error, I discovered that the thing that was triggering my attacks now seemed to be milk, and after another bad episode in January I gave up milk entirely. That seemed to work, and I suffered no further attacks before my surgery. You’d think I might had lost weight over all of this, but no – I discovered that I could still eat cheese in small quantities, chocolate and sweets, and I did a lot of comfort eating. So I actually gained weight.
My surgery got delayed once. It was due to be in February, but then after my pre-op assessment I received a phone call to tell me that my blood results had come back a little strange, and the surgeon wanted more tests before he operated. Turns out that my blood results showed increased kidney function, which could be indicative of one (or more) stones having escaped the gallbladder and getting stuck elsewhere in my body. As my surgeon said, if they’re going to do the surgery they only want to do it once, so they wanted to be sure they knew where all the stones were. I had an MRI scan, which thankfully showed all the gallstones were still sitting in my gallbladder. We rescheduled the surgery, and on 29th April I went in for my operation.
Thankfully I was one of the 19 out of 20, and my surgery was completed keyhole (although it’s actually FOUR keyholes!). The surgery is supposed to be done as a day case, but I didn’t actually go down to theatre until 3pm, and was very slow waking up from the anaesthetic, so I stayed in hospital one night and went home the following day. For the first few days I felt quite sore, and hobbled around like an invalid, but after the first week I felt able to walk pretty normally, and now two weeks on I feel pretty much back to normal. I’m not going to be doing any strenuous exercise for a while, but I’m walking normally, and driving again which is good.
In theory I’m supposed to now be able to eat anything, although I understand this can vary from person to person, and it’s wise to re-introduce fatty foods gradually. So far I still haven’t drunk any milk, and I’m wondering if I might just give it up completely. When I stopped drinking milk I found the amount I needed to buy for the family halved, so I think I was drinking too much to start with – perhaps a cut down will do me good in the long term?
So that’s the story of my gallbladder, and here’s to a pain-free future!