AssessmentsGallbladder disorders: Clinical practice
USMLE® Step 2 style questions USMLE
A 46-year-old woman is brought to the hospital for evaluation of constant and stabbing abdominal pain that began 28 hours ago. In addition, the patient has had several episodes of emesis. Medical history is notable for type II diabetes mellitus and hyperlipidemia, for which she is taking atorvastatin and gemfibrozil. She immigrated from Thailand nine years ago. Temperature is 38.6°C (101.5°F), blood pressure is 119/72 mmHg, and pulse is 83/min. Physical exam is notable for tenderness in the right upper abdominal quadrant. No abdominal distention is observed. Examination of the eyes reveals scleral icterus. The patient has dry mucosal membranes and a delayed capillary refill time. Laboratory testing reveals the findings shown below. Which of the following pathogens is most likely responsible for this patient’s condition?
|Laboratory Value||Result (U.S. conventional units) Results (SI units)||Result (U.S. conventional units) Results (SI units)|
|Hemoglobin||13.5 g/dL||135 g/L|
|Total Bilirubin||5.1 mg/dL||87.21 µmol/L|
|Conjugated Bilirubin||4.6 mg/dL||78.66 µmol/L|
|Aspartate Aminotransferase||93 U/L||93 U/L|
|Alanine Aminotransferase||85 U/L||85 U/L|
|Lipase*||38 U/L||38 U/L|
Content Reviewers:Rishi Desai, MD, MPH
The gallbladder is a small, pouch-like organ that stores the bile produced by the liver.
The biliary tree is made up of the left and right hepatic duct which come together and form the common hepatic duct, as well the cystic duct, which unites with the common hepatic duct to form the common bile duct, also known as choleducus duct.
Finally, the common bile duct joins with the main pancreatic canal to open in the second part of the duodenum.
Now, most gallbladder diseases are related to either the presence of stones in the gallbladder or in the common bile duct, and whether those locations are infected as the result of an obstruction caused by the gallstones.
A gallstone in the gallbladder is called cholelithiasis, and a gallstone in the common bile duct is called choledocolithiasis, and both are associated with mild inflammation. But, if the gallstones block the normal bile flow this can cause severe inflammation in the biliary tree.
When there’s a lot of inflammation, the gallbladder and common bile duct tissue becomes extremely susceptible to infection. An infection of an obstructed gallbladder is called cholecystitis, and an infection of an obstructed common bile duct is called cholangitis, or ascending cholangitis.
For example, if there’s too much cholesterol, cholesterol gallstones form, and that happens mostly in female individuals during the reproductive period, especially over the age of forty. Other risk factors include being overweight and native American.
In some cases mixed gallstones may appear, made up of variable amounts of both cholesterol and pigments. But in practice, there’s no way to know the exact composition of the stone until the gallbladder is surgically removed.
Typically, gallstones happily remain in the gallbladder for months to years without ever being noticed, because they may not cause any symptoms. In fact, gallstones that are smaller than 5 millimeters, can pass through the cystic duct and reach the small intestine and be eliminated.
These individuals might have biliary colic, which is abdominal pain in the right upper quadrant or epigastric region that can radiate to the shoulder or back, and typically lasts for less than an hour. Pain occurs because the gallbladder contracts against a bunch of stones, and that can temporarily compress the cystic duct. This often worsens after a high-fat meal.
Associated symptoms include nausea, vomiting, and sweating.
The first and most accurate test for diagnosing cholelithiasis is an ultrasound of the right upper quadrant, which shows a distended gallbladder with stones inside. On an ultrasound, the gallstones cast an acoustic shadow below the gallbladder, and they also move freely when the individual turns from one side to the other, which helps distinguish them from other conditions, such as carcinoma. In some cases, the gallstones are so small that on the ultrasound they appear as a so called “sludge” which doesn’t cast an acoustic shadow.
Ok, now for most asymptomatic individuals, the usual plan is watchful waiting. However, for symptomatic individuals or those at high risk for developing symptoms, treatment is necessary.
High risk individuals include those with hemolytic disorders like sickle cell disease, morbidly obese individuals who undergo gastric bypass or individuals who have risk factors for developing gallbladder cancer, like gallstones bigger than 3 centimeters, a calcified gallbladder wall, also called a porcelain gallbladder, and gallbladder adenomas.
Initially gallstone disease is treated with spasmolytics such as butylscopolamine or in severe cases with opioids such as buprenorphine to stop the gallbladder from contracting in order to ease the pain. After that, a cholecystectomy - which is surgical removal of the gallbladder - can be done. Cholecystectomy is curative, meaning that once it’s done, no further medication is needed.
Another option for those that don’t have a cholecystectomy is a technique called extracorporeal shock-wave lithotripsy, or ESWL. ESWL is a machine that uses high-energy sound waves that produce shock waves to break gallstones into smaller fragments which then can be dissolved in the bile.
ESWL is a non-invasive procedure that’s usually used to break down kidney stones, but it works in individuals with a normal body mass index who have less than 3 gallstones between 4 to 30 millimeters.
In choledocolithiasis - try saying that three times fast - a stone gets stuck in the common bile duct. Most frequently, this happens when a stone spontaneously passes through the cystic duct which is wider in some individuals and gets stuck in the common bile duct. However, in rare situations, gallstones can also form directly in the common bile duct. Those are typically made mainly of bilirubin and are called pigment gallstones.
Other symptoms include abdominal pain in the right upper quadrant that lasts for more than one hour, nausea and vomiting.
On clinical examination, Courvoisier’s sign may be present, meaning there’s a palpable gallbladder. This happens as a result of the obstruction of the common bile duct which makes the gallbladder dilate.
Courvoisier’s sign is usually associated with malignant common bile duct obstruction, but it can also appear in choledocolithiasis.
Blood tests will show leukocytosis, and because of cholestasis, meaning something- in this case, a stone- is blocking the flow in the common bile duct to the duodenum, total bilirubin is high, and especially direct or conjugated bilirubin, also alkaline phosphatase and gamma glutamyl transferase levels are high.
Pancreatitis can cause have pain in the upper abdomen which radiates in the shoulder and back, as well as abdominal tenderness, and blood tests will show high amylase and lipase levels.