Bile ducts are tiny tubes which carry bile juice produced by the liver to the duodenum, which is the first part of the small intestine. We may not mention them much in conversations about our body, but bile helps in the digestion of fat in the food that we consume. Yellow to green in colour, bile also imparts colour to the stools we expel. Bile is produced in the liver and stored in the gall bladder.
Once food enters the small intestine, the gall bladder contracts to transport the bile to the duodenum. Sometimes, stones which form in the gall bladder may drop into the bile duct, causing blockage. What results is a condition called jaundice or yellow discolouration of the eyes and tea-coloured urine.
How do bile duct stones develop?
Stones in our bile ducts don’t actually originate there. Rather, they develop as gallstones in our gall bladder, where thick bile juice forms sludge, and then hardens into stones. These can range in size, from small grains to the size of a golf ball.
While most gallstones do not cause symptoms, they can move from the gall bladder into the bile ducts. When this happens, a condition called choledocholithiasis, commonly referred to as bile duct stones, happens.
The following factors increase your risk for developing gallstones:
- Being 40 years or older
- Diabetes mellitus
- Family history of gallstones
- Being female in gender
- Consuming a high fat diet
- Rapid weight loss
- Use of birth control pills
What are the symptoms of bile duct stones?
Bile duct stones can cause pain in the upper right portion of the abdomen and pain is felt most often after a meal.
If the stone causes blockage of the bile duct, it can also cause the following symptoms:
- Clay-coloured stools
- Dark, tea-coloured urine
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Severe, persistent abdominal pain
- Yellowing of the skin and eyes
How are bile duct stones diagnosed?
When bile duct stones are suspected, the doctor can request imaging tests to visualise the gallbladder and bile duct. These include an ultrasound, computerised tomography (CT) scan, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
The role of ERCP
Endoscopic retrograde cholangio pancreatography (ERCP) is a procedure that allows the doctor to pass an endoscope from the mouth to the duodenum, then diagnose and remove the bile duct stones.
Before the procedure, you will be instructed not to eat or drink. The procedure is carried out under sedation and when you wake up, you will have no recollection of what happened. There should not be any pain or discomfort during or after the procedure.
During the ERCP, the doctor will inject a dye into the bile duct to localise the stones. Subsequently, the stones are removed using baskets or balloons which are inserted through the scope.
The procedure will take around 30 – 60 minutes. You will be allowed to go home once the effects of the sedatives wear off.
When should you see a doctor?
Do consult a doctor for an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan should you be experiencing any discomfort in your abdomen. Especially if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- Pain in the abdomen especially after eating
- Tea-coloured urine or light-coloured stools
- Yellowing of the skin or eyes
Article reviewed by Dr Amitabh Monga, gastroenterologist at Gleneagles Hospital
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