What is choledocholithiasis?
Choledocholithiasis (also called bile duct
stones or gallstones in the bile duct) is the presence of a gallstone in the
common bile duct. Gallstones usually form in your gallbladder. The bile duct is
the small tube that carries bile from the gallbladder to the intestine. The
gallbladder is a pear-shaped organ below your liver in the upper right side of
your abdomen. These stones usually remain in the gallbladder or pass through
the common bile duct unobstructed.
However, about 15 percent of all people
with gallstones will have gallstones in the bile duct, or choledocholithiasis,
according to research published in The Medical Clinics of North America.
What are the symptoms?
Gallstones in the bile duct may not cause
symptoms for months or even years. But if a stone becomes lodged in the duct
and obstructs it, you may experience the following:
- abdominal pain in the right
upper or middle upper abdomen
- jaundice (yellowing of
the skin and eyes)
- loss of appetite
- nausea and vomiting
- clay-colored stools
The pain caused by gallstones in the bile
duct can be sporadic, or it can linger. The pain may be mild at times and then
suddenly severe. Severe pain may require emergency medical treatment. The most
severe symptoms may be confused with a cardiac event like a heart attack.
When a gallstone is stuck in the bile
duct, the bile can become infected. The bacteria from the infection can spread
rapidly, and may move into the liver. If this happens, it can become a
life-threatening infection. Other possible complications include biliary
cirrhosis and pancreatitis.
There are two types of gallstones:
cholesterol gallstones and pigment gallstones.
Cholesterol gallstones often appear yellow
and are the most common type of gallstone. Scientists believe that cholesterol stones are caused by
bile that contains:
- too much cholesterol
- too much bilirubin
- not enough bile salts
They may also occur if the gallbladder
does not empty completely or often enough.
The cause of pigment stones
is not known. They seem to occur in people who have:
- cirrhosis of the liver
- biliary tract
- hereditary blood
disorders in which the liver makes too much bilirubin
Who is at risk?
People with a history of gallstones or
gallbladder disease are at risk for bile duct stones. Even people who have had
their gallbladders removed can experience this condition.
The following increase your chances of
high-calorie, high-fat diet
- prolonged fasting
- rapid weight loss
- lack of physical
Some of these risk factors for gallstones can be
improved through lifestyle changes.
Risk factors you cannot change include:
- age: older adults
typically have a higher risk for gallstones
- gender: women are more
likely to have gallstones
- ethnicity: Asians,
American Indians, and Mexican Americans are at higher risk for gallstones
- family history:
genetics may play a role
If you have symptoms, a doctor will want
to verify the presence of a gallstone in the common bile duct. He or she may
use one of the following imaging tests:
ultrasound (TUS): an imaging procedure that uses high-frequency sound
waves to examine the liver, gallbladder, spleen, kidneys, and pancreas
- abdominal CT scan:
cross-sectional X-rays of the abdomen
- endoscopic ultrasound
(EUS): an ultrasound probe is inserted on a flexible endoscopic tube and
inserted through the mouth to examine the digestive tract
- endoscopic retrograde
cholangiography (ERCP): a procedure used to identify stones, tumors, and
narrowing in the bile ducts
- magnetic resonance
cholangiopancreatography (MRCP): an MRI of the gallbladder, bile ducts,
and pancreatic duct
transhepatic cholangiogram (PTCA): an X-ray of the bile ducts
Your doctor may also order one or more of
the following blood tests to look for an infection and to check liver and
- complete blood count
- pancreatic enzymes
- liver function tests
Treating gallstones in the bile duct
focuses on relieving the blockage. These treatments may include:
- stone extraction
- fragmenting stones
- surgery to remove the
gallbladder and stones (cholecystectomy)
- surgery that makes a
cut into the common bile duct to remove stones or help them pass
- biliary stenting
The most common treatment for gallstones
in the bile duct is biliary endoscopic sphincterotomy (BES). During a BES
procedure, a balloon- or basket-type device is inserted into the bile duct and
used to extract the stone or stones. About 85 percent of bile duct stones can
be removed with BES.
If a stone does not pass on its own or
cannot be removed with BES, doctors may use lithotripsy. This procedure is
designed to fragment stones so they can be captured or passed easily.
Patients with gallstones in the bile duct
and gallstones still in the gallbladder may be treated by removing the
gallbladder. While performing the surgery, your doctor will also inspect your
bile duct to check for remaining gallstones.
If stones cannot be removed completely or
you have a history of gallstones causing problems but do not wish to have your
gallbladder removed, your doctor may place biliary stents (tiny tubes to open
the passage). These will provide adequate drainage and help prevent future
choledocholithiasis episodes. The stents can also prevent infection.
How can it be prevented?
If you have bile duct stones once, it’s
likely you will experience them again. Even if you have your gallbladder
removed, a risk remains.
Lifestyle changes such as moderate
physical activity and dietary changes (increasing fiber and decreasing
saturated fats) can reduce your likelihood of developing gallstones in the
What is the long-term outlook?
According to a 2008 study published in The Medical Clinics of North America, bile duct stones return
in 4 to 24 percent of patients during the 15-year period after they first
occur. Some of these stones may have been left over from the previous episode.