Biliary Obstruction: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Sep 15, 2020

Alaska Cancer Treatment Center

Also known as bile duct obstruction, biliary obstruction is a blockage in one of the ducts that transport bile from the liver to the small intestine through the gallbladder. Bile is a liquid produced by the liver that contains bile salts, cholesterol, and waste products like bilirubin that help digest fats. From the liver, the bile passes via a network of bile ducts (also referred to as biliary tree) and accumulates in the gallbladder. After you have eaten a meal, the bile is released from the gallbladder into the small intestine to help digest food and break down fat. 

What Are the Causes of Biliary Obstruction?

Biliary obstruction occurs when one of the bile ducts becomes blocked, leading to the bile collecting in the liver and bilirubin shooting up in the bloodstream. The following are a few potential causes resulting in biliary obstruction:

  • Inflamed lymph nodes
  • Gallstones
  • Cysts 
  • Injury due to gallbladder surgery
  • Tumors that have spread to the gallbladder, liver, pancreas, or bile ducts
  • Inflamed bile ducts
  • Liver damage 

What Are the Risk Factors?

Risk factors for bile duct obstruction include:

  • Pancreatic Cancer
  • Gallstones
  • Recent biliary surgery
  • Recent biliary cancer
  • Injury to the abdomen
  • History of chronic pancreatitis

What Are the Symptoms of Biliary Obstruction?

Symptoms of bile duct obstruction will vary – they may be severe and abrupt or may appear slowly over the years. Common symptoms experienced by patients include:
Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes) due to the build-up of bilirubin in the bloodstream

  • Itching
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue or lethargy
  • Fever
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Pale-colored stools

What Treatments Are Available for Biliary Obstruction?

The main objective of the treatment is to relieve the bile duct blockage. Depending on the underlying cause of the blockage, your doctor may suggest several treatment options. 
Gallstones may be removed from the bile duct using endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP). The doctor may even recommend a cholecystectomy to remove the gallbladder to prevent recurring blockages in the future.
If the obstruction is formed because of cancer, surgical procedures may be suggested to stretch and drain the ducts. This will be done using an endoscope or by dilating the duct to widen it.

What Are the Complications Related to Biliary Duct Obstruction?

When left untreated, biliary duct obstruction can lead to possible complications such as liver disease like biliary cirrhosis, infections, sepsis, the build-up of bilirubin in the bloodstream, and inflammation of the gallbladder.

Is It Possible to Prevent Biliary Obstruction?

While most causes of biliary obstruction are usually unpreventable, experts believe that making a few changes in your diet and weight can make you less susceptible to developing this condition. Add more fiber to your diet, and lower your intake of saturated fats, cholesterol, and sugar, to prevent gallstones. With the help of exercise and a nutritious diet, work towards achieving a healthy weight.
To learn more about biliary obstructions and its preventive measures, contact us.

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