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    Bile duct obstruction

    Biliary obstruction

    Bile duct obstruction is a blockage in the tubes that carry bile from the liver to the gallbladder and small intestine.

    See also:

    • Acute cholecystitis
    • Choledocholithiasis
    • Gallstones


    Bile is a liquid released by the liver. It contains cholesterol, bile salts, and waste products such as bilirubin. Bile salts help your body break down (digest) fats. Bile passes out of the liver through the bile ducts and is stored in the gallbladder. After a meal, it is released into the small intestine.

    When the bile ducts become blocked, bile builds up in the liver, and jaundice (yellow color of the skin) develops due to the increasing levels of bilirubin in the blood.

    The possible causes of a blocked bile duct include:

    • Cysts of the common bile duct
    • Enlarged lymp nodes in the porta hepatis
    • Gallstones
    • Inflammation of the bile ducts
    • Narrowing of the bile ducts from scarring
    • Injuryfrom gallbladder surgery
    • Tumors of the bile ducts or pancreas
    • Tumors that have spread to the biliary system

    The risk factors include:

    • History of gallstones, chronic pancreatitis, or pancreatic cancer
    • Injury to the abdominal area
    • Recent biliary surgery
    • Recent biliary cancer (such as bile duct cancer)

    The blockage can also be caused by infections. This is more common in persons with weakened immune systems.


    • Abdominal pain in the upper right side
    • Dark urine
    • Fever
    • Itching
    • Jaundice (yellow skin color)
    • Nausea and vomiting
    • Pale-colored stools

    Exams and Tests

    Your doctor or nurse will examine you and feel your belly.

    The following blood test results could be due to a possible blockage:

    • Increased bilirubin level
    • Increased alkaline phosphatase level
    • Increased liver enzymes

    The following tests may be used to investigate a possible blocked bile duct:

    • Abdominal ultrasound
    • Abdominal CT scan
    • ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography)
    • Percutaneous transhepatic cholangiogram (PTCA)
    • Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP)

    A blocked bile duct may also alter the results of the following tests:

    • Amylase blood test
    • Gallbladder radionuclide scan
    • Lipase blood test
    • Prothrombin time (PT)
    • Urine bilirubin


    The goal of treatment is to relieve the blockage. Stones may be removed using an endoscope during an ERCP.

    In some cases, surgery is required to bypass the blockage. The gallbladder will usually be surgically removed if the blockage is caused by gallstones. Your health care provider may prescribe antibiotics if an infection is suspected.

    If the blockage is caused by cancer, the duct may need to be widened. This procedure is called endoscope or percutaneous (through the skin next to the liver) dilation. A tube may need to be placed to allow drainage.

    Outlook (Prognosis)

    If the blockage is not corrected, it can lead to life-threatening infection and a dangerous buildup of bilirubin.

    If the blockage lasts a long time, chronic liver disease can result. Most obstructions can be treated with endoscopy or surgery. Obstructions caused by cancer often have a worse outcome.

    Possible Complications

    Left untreated, the possible complications include infections, sepsis, and liver disease, such as biliary cirrhosis.

    When to Contact a Medical Professional

    Call your health care provider if you notice a change in the color of your urine and stools or you develop jaundice.


    Be aware of any risk factors you have, so that you can get prompt diagnosis and treatment if a bile duct becomes blocked. Theblockage itself may not be preventable.


    Afdhal NH. Diseases of the gallbladder and bile ducts. In:Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 158.


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      A Closer Look

      Tests for Bile duct obstruction

      Review Date: 5/1/2012

      Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. George F. Longstreth, MD, Department of Gastroenterology, Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program, San Diego, California. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.

      The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

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