What are potential complications of biliary obstruction?

Updated: Oct 16, 2019
  • Author: Jennifer Lynn Bonheur, MD; Chief Editor: Vinay Kumar Kapoor, MBBS, MS, FRCS, FAMS  more...
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Note the following:

  • The complications of cholestasis are proportional to the duration and intensity of the jaundice.

  • High-grade biliary obstruction begins to cause cell damage after approximately 1 month and, if unrelieved, may lead to secondary biliary cirrhosis.

  • Acute cholangitis is another complication associated with obstruction of the biliary tract and is the most common complication of a stricture, most often at the level of the CBD. Bile normally is sterile. In the presence of obstruction to flow, stasis favors colonization and multiplication of bacteria within the bile. [5] Concomitant increased intraductal pressure can lead to the reflux of biliary contents and bacteremia, which can cause septic shock and death. [5] For this reason, medical treatment of the patient with cholangitis serves only as a temporizing measure. Long-term relief of the biliary obstruction, whether it be surgical, percutaneous, or endoscopic, is necessary to prevent an adverse outcome. [6]

  • Patients with biliary obstruction who undergo biliary tract surgery may develop postoperative acute oliguric renal failure. The complication may be due to nephrotoxic bile salts and pigments, endotoxins, or inflammatory mediators. Elderly patients who are deeply jaundiced are more likely to develop postoperative oliguric renal failure than patients of the same age without jaundice.

  • Biliary colic that recurs at any point after a cholecystectomy should prompt evaluation for possible choledocholithiasis.

  • Failure of bile salts to reach the intestine results in fat malabsorption with steatorrhea. In addition, the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K are not absorbed, resulting in vitamin deficiencies. Disordered hemostasis with an abnormally prolonged PT may further complicate the course of these patients. Cholestyramine and colestipol, used to treat pruritus, bind to bile salts and can exacerbate these vitamin deficiencies.

  • Persistent cholestasis from any cause may be associated with deposits of cholesterol in the skin (cutaneous xanthomatosis) and, occasionally, in bones and peripheral nerves.

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