Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography

Authored by , Reviewed by Dr Helen Huins | Last edited | Meets Patient’s editorial guidelines

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This article is for Medical Professionals

Professional Reference articles are designed for health professionals to use. They are written by UK doctors and based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. You may find the ERCP (Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography) article more useful, or one of our other health articles.

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Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) is used both in the diagnosis and the treatment of many pancreatic and biliary diseases. It was first used in the 1970s at which point its main use was in diagnosis. Now, its use is mostly as a therapeutic tool.

ERCP provides detailed and accurate information of the pancreaticobiliary system in cases which cannot be diagnosed by endoscopic ultrasound. It also provides a less invasive option than open surgery for the management of several pancreatic conditions. ERCP has evolved from a purely diagnostic tool to a predominantly therapeutic procedure.

  • Choledocholithiasis (eg, gallstones in the common bile duct (CBD) and microlithiasis).
  • Acute pancreatitis due to biliary obstruction, sphincter of Oddi dysfunction or idiopathic, recurrent cases.
  • Detection of pancreatic divisum (more common in patients who develop pancreatitis but may not necessarily be causal).
  • Diagnosis of pancreatic and biliary malignancy. Endoscopic ultrasound provides an acceptable option in many cases and can be used as a triage procedure to determine which patients should proceed to ERCP.
  • Palliative therapy for inoperable pancreaticobiliary malignancies - eg, drainage procedures.
  • Dilatation of benign strictures - eg, following orthoptic liver transplantation.
  • Chronic pancreatitis - there is a role for dilatation of strictures or stent insertion.[2]
  • Manometry measures in sphincter of Oddi dysfunction.

ERCP and choledocholithiasis

One method for determining who should have an ERCP is to classify patients into low-risk, intermediate-risk or high-risk.

  • Low-risk patients should proceed to laparoscopic cholecystectomy without further intervention or imaging procedures.
  • Intermediate-risk patients include those with features, such as previous history of cholangitis or pancreatitis, slightly abnormal LFTs (eg, raised ALP but less than twice normal), dilated CBD between 8-10 mm. This group of patients should have further tests (eg, endoscopic ultrasound) before deciding on further intervention.
  • High-risk patients include those with recent cholangitis, recent acute pancreatitis, jaundice, abnormal LFTs (ALP more than twice normal) and dilated CBD >10 mm. This group will usually benefit most from ERCP. However, even a third of these patients will fail to have a stone on ERCP and further investigation may be needed.

ERCP and acute pancreatitis

  • Some patients wtih severe acute pancreatitis with evidence of biliary tract obstruction have an ERCP.
  • At ERCP, sphincterotomy may be performed to remove duct obstruction - eg, gallstone.
  • However, there is a risk that pancreatitis may be worsened. There is no role for early ERCP in patients with (predicted) mild biliary pancreatitis to improve outcome.[3]
  • A meta-analysis of studies looking at the role of ERCP in acute biliary pancreatitis has confirmed that early ERCP reduces both complications and mortality rates.
  • Sphincter of Oddi dysfunction can lead to pancreatitis (usually in women following cholecystectomy) and responds to isolated biliary sphincterotomy.
  • ERCP is one of the most technically demanding and high-risk procedures performed by gastrointestinal endoscopists.
  • ERCP is performed on an outpatient or inpatient basis.
  • Patients have to fast overnight.
  • Patients are usually sedated for the procedure (eg, using midazolam) and analgesia is also given.
  • Antibiotics are usually given before the procedure for those patients with known or suspected obstruction in which complete relief of the obstruction is not anticipated or in patients receiving immunosuppression after liver transplantation.[4]
  • Patients usually lie on their left side.
  • The back of the throat is sprayed with a local anaesthetic.
  • The endoscope is passed down through to the stomach and then to the duodenum (where the ducts of the pancreaticobiliary system open, called Vater's ampulla).
  • Air may be pumped into the duodenum to allow better visualisation.
  • Using a wire passed through the endoscope, contrast is injected through Vater's ampulla and X-rays obtained.
  • These images will indicate areas of obstruction.
  • Further intervention can be performed down the endoscope if necessary - eg, stone removal, stent insertion, biopsies.
  • Pancreatitis - this is one of the most frequent post-ERCP complications. The incidence of this is around 20%.[5]The majority of cases are mild but 10% of cases are moderate-to-severe and may lead to multi-organ failure and even death. The chances of pancreatitis post-ERCP can be reduced by avoiding excessive cannulation trauma and stent insertion - the latter being the most effective method.[6]Stent insertion allows pancreatic secretions to pass freely.
  • Post-ERCP pancreatitis rates are dependent on the type of ERCP performed.
  • There is evidence that peri-operative indometacin or diclofenac helps to reduce the incidence of pancreatitis.[7]
  • Infection may occur - although rates are low.
  • Bleeding may occur - although severe haemorrhage is rare.
  • Perforation of the duodenum with development of an acute abdomen.
  • Failure of gallstone retrieval - may need to revert to open or more invasive procedures.
  • Prolonged pancreatic stenting is associated with stent occlusion, pancreatic duct obstruction and pseudocyst formation.
Is ERCP being superseded by endoscopic ultrasound (EUS) and magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP)?

  • In general, the optimal role of ERCP is in patients with proven pancreaticobiliary malignancies or biliary ductal stones.
  • EUS is ultrasonography via an endoscope. It is used in many pancreatic and biliary disorders, especially choledocholithiasis and pancreatic lesions - eg, neoplasms or cysts:
    • It was originally used solely for imaging purposes but, with improved techniques, it can now be combined with fine-needle aspiration (FNA).
    • Some interventional techniques can also be performed with EUS - eg, injection of bupivacaine into the coeliac ganglia for analgesia in irresectable pancreatic carcinoma.
    • EUS has a greater specificity than MRCP in detecting gallstones in the ducts (sensitivity is the same) - however, some stones can be missed by EUS.
    • In pancreatitis, EUS will provide additional features (eg, peripancreatic collections) and it is also more informative in chronic pancreatitis, especially when abdominal CT and ultrasound scanning fail to find an underlying cause.
    • Use of ERCP plus EUS has been shown to be associated with increased diagnostic value in the detection of pancreatic neoplasms compared with ERCP and EUS alone.[8].
  • MRCP, on the other hand, uses selective magnetic resonance imaging to look at the biliary and pancreatic tree in greater detail and is used to diagnose disease in the pancreaticobiliary region; it does not offer any therapeutic options:
    • MRCP, due to its non-invasive nature, does not have the same mortality or morbidity rates as ERCP.
    • The main downside is that some patients will need to go on and have an ERCP anyway.
    • MRCP is, by and large, comparable to ERCP for diagnostic purposes, especially in choledocholithiasis. However, its sensitivity might decrease in the evaluation of microlithiasis.
    • MRCP is reportedly as sensitive as ERCP in detecting pancreatic cancers and, unlike conventional ERCP, does not require the use of contrast material, lessening the chance of complications.
    • However, a recent study has shown that an MRCP-first approach, where patients generally only undergo ERCP in the setting of an abnormal MRCP, was not significantly advantageous over an ERCP-first approach.[9]

In summary, ERCP has its role to play in pancreaticobiliary disorders. These are mainly therapeutic in nature. However, in cases where there is doubt regarding the diagnosis or presence of biliary obstruction, further imaging should be performed first. This may include MRCP if biliary obstruction alone is suspected, or EUS in other conditions.

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Further reading and references

  1. Adler DG, Lieb JG 2nd, Cohen J, et al; Quality indicators for ERCP. Gastrointest Endosc. 2015 Jan81(1):54-66. doi: 10.1016/j.gie.2014.07.056. Epub 2014 Dec 2.

  2. Riff BP, Chandrasekhara V; The Role of Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography in Management of Pancreatic Diseases. Gastroenterol Clin North Am. 2016 Mar45(1):45-65. doi: 10.1016/j.gtc.2015.10.009.

  3. da Costa DW, Schepers NJ, Romkens TE, et al; Endoscopic sphincterotomy and cholecystectomy in acute biliary pancreatitis. Surgeon. 2016 Apr14(2):99-108. doi: 10.1016/j.surge.2015.10.002. Epub 2015 Nov 2.

  4. Khashab MA, Chithadi KV, Acosta RD, et al; Antibiotic prophylaxis for GI endoscopy. Gastrointest Endosc. 2015 Jan81(1):81-9. doi: 10.1016/j.gie.2014.08.008. Epub 2014 Nov 11.

  5. Jung MK, Jang YJ, Cho CM, et al; Iatrogenic pancreatitis in patients with IPMN after ERCP: incidence and predictive signs. Abdom Imaging. 2014 Oct39(5):949-54. doi: 10.1007/s00261-014-0122-0.

  6. Mazaki T, Mado K, Masuda H, et al; Prophylactic pancreatic stent placement and post-ERCP pancreatitis: an updated meta-analysis. J Gastroenterol. 2014 Feb49(2):343-55. doi: 10.1007/s00535-013-0806-1. Epub 2013 Apr 24.

  7. Andrade-Davila VF, Chavez-Tostado M, Davalos-Cobian C, et al; Rectal indomethacin versus placebo to reduce the incidence of pancreatitis after endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography: results of a controlled clinical trial. BMC Gastroenterol. 2015 Jul 2115:85. doi: 10.1186/s12876-015-0314-2.

  8. Li H, Hu Z, Chen J, et al; Comparison of ERCP, EUS, and ERCP combined with EUS in diagnosing pancreatic neoplasms: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Tumour Biol. 2014 Sep35(9):8867-74. doi: 10.1007/s13277-014-2154-z. Epub 2014 Jun 3.

  9. Bhat M, Romagnuolo J, da Silveira E, et al; Randomised clinical trial: MRCP-first vs. ERCP-first approach in patients with suspected biliary obstruction due to bile duct stones. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2013 Nov38(9):1045-53. doi: 10.1111/apt.12481. Epub 2013 Sep 11.