Gallstones (cont.)

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Can gallstones be prevented?

Ideally, it would be better if gallstones could be prevented rather than treated. Prevention of cholesterol gallstones is feasible since ursodiol, the bile acid medication that dissolves some cholesterol gallstones, also prevents them from forming. The difficulty is to identify individuals who are at a high risk for developing cholesterol gallstones over a relatively short period of time so that the duration of preventive treatment can be limited. One such group is obese individuals losing weight rapidly with very low calorie diets or with surgery. The risk of gallstones in this group is as high as 40% to 60%. In fact, ursodiol has been shown in several studies to be very effective at preventing gallstones in these individuals.

Can symptoms continue after gallstones are removed?

Removal of the gallbladder (cholecystectomy) should eliminate all gallstone-related symptoms except in three situations:

  1. gallstones were left in the ducts,
  2. there were problems with the bile ducts in addition to gallstones, and
  3. gallstones were not the cause of the symptoms.

The possibility of gallstones in the ducts can be pursued with MRCP, endoscopic ultrasound, and ERCP. Rarely, gallstone-like symptoms can be caused by a condition called sphincter of Oddi dysfunction, discussed below.

The common bile duct has a muscular wall. The last several centimeters of the common bile duct's muscle immediately before the duct joins the duodenum comprise the sphincter of Oddi. The sphincter of Oddi controls the flow of bile. Since the pancreatic duct usually joins the common bile duct shortly before it enters the duodenum, the sphincter also controls the flow of fluid from the pancreatic duct. When the muscle of the sphincter tightens, it shuts off the flow of bile and pancreatic fluid. When it relaxes, bile and pancreatic fluid flow into the duodenum, for example, after a meal. The sphincter may become scarred, and the duct is narrowed by the scarring. (The cause of the scarring is unknown.) The sphincter also may go into spasm intermittently. In either case, the flow of bile and pancreatic fluid may intermittently stop abruptly, mimicking the effects of a gallstone causing biliary colic and pancreatitis.

The diagnosis of sphincter of Oddi dysfunction can be difficult to make. The best diagnostic test requires an endoscopic procedure with the same type of endoscope as ERCP. Instead of filling the ducts with dye, however, the pressure within the sphincter is measured. If the pressure is abnormally high, scarring or spasm of the sphincter are likely. The treatment for sphincter of Oddi dysfunction is sphincterotomy. (described previously). The measurement of liver and pancreatic enzymes in the blood also may be useful in diagnosing sphincter dysfunction.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 4/11/2014

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