What are the complications of gallstones (cholelithiasis) in the common bile duct?

Updated: Apr 01, 2019
  • Author: Douglas M Heuman, MD, FACP, FACG, AGAF; Chief Editor: BS Anand, MD  more...
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Gallstones are initially retained in the gallbladder by the spiral valves of the cystic duct. Following episodes of gallstone impaction in the cystic duct, these valves may become obliterated and stones may pass into the common bile duct. Patients who have passed one stone tend to pass more stones over the subsequent months.

Stones in the common bile duct may be asymptomatic, but, more commonly, they impact distally in the ampulla of Vater. This may produce biliary colic indistinguishable from that caused by cystic duct stones. Because impaction of common bile duct stones occludes the flow of bile from the liver to the intestine, pressure rises in the intrahepatic bile ducts, leading to elevation of liver enzymes and jaundice.

Bacterial overgrowth in stagnant bile above an obstructing common duct stone produces purulent inflammation of the liver and biliary tree, termed ascending cholangitis. The characteristic features include the Charcot triad of fever, jaundice, and right upper quadrant pain. Patients may rapidly develop septic shock unless the ductal obstruction is relieved.

A stone impacted at the ampulla of Vater may transiently obstruct the pancreatic duct, leading to in situ activation of pancreatic proteases and triggering an attack of acute pancreatitis. Pancreatic pain is different from biliary pain. The pain is located in the epigastric and midabdominal areas and is sharp, severe, continuous, and radiates to the back. Nausea and vomiting are frequently present, and a similar previous episode is reported by approximately 15% patients.

Stone impaction in the distal common bile duct is often relieved spontaneously within hours to days by passage of the stone into the intestine.

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