IM Board Review

Recurrent abdominal pain after laparoscopic cholecystectomy

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Four months after undergoing laparoscopic cholecystectomy for symptomatic gallstones, an otherwise healthy 26-year-old woman begins to have episodes of epigastric and back pain similar to what she experienced before the surgery. The surgery was without complications, and her classic biliary colic disappeared afterward. Histologic evaluation of the surgical specimen revealed chronic cholecystitis with multiple small, mixed gallstones.

Now she describes a burning pain in her epigastrium and mid to upper back, starting about 30 minutes after a meal and lasting up to 4 hours. Sometimes it awakens her at night. She avoids eating for fear of inducing the pain. She has occasional chills but no fever, nausea, vomiting, jaundice, or changes in urine or stool color.

Three years ago she was diagnosed with a gastric ulcer induced by taking a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). The ulcer was treated with a proton pump inhibitor for 1 month. She says the ulcer pain was dull and aching, different from her current pain.

Upper endoscopy 4 months ago (ie, before her laparoscopic cholecystectomy) showed no evidence of esophagitis or peptic ulcer disease.

Apart from her gallbladder operation, she has had no other surgery. According to the surgeon’s notes, intraoperative cholangiography was not performed, and no macroscopic changes of acute cholecystitis or difficult biliary anatomy were noted.

The patient does not smoke, does not drink alcohol, is not currently taking any medications, including NSAIDs or over-the-counter medications, and has not taken any recently. Her mother also had symptomatic gallstones requiring cholecystectomy.

On physical examination, only fever

On examination, her temperature is 101.2°F (38.4°C), blood pressure 117/80 mm Hg, heart rate 82 beats per minute, and blood oxygen saturation 99% on room air. Her weight is 138 lb (62.6 kg), height 5 feet 6 inches (168 cm).

There is no jaundice or pallor. Her heart and lung examinations are normal.

Her abdomen is soft and mildly tender to palpation of the epigastrium, with no distention or hepatosplenomegaly and no rebound tenderness or guarding. The scars from her laparoscopic surgery have healed well. Her bowel sounds are normal.

No costovertebral angle or spinal tenderness can be elicited.

Her laboratory values are shown in Table 1.


1. After cholecystectomy, preoperative symptoms recur in what percentage of patients?

  • 10% to 40%
  • 50%
  • 60%
  • 80%

Postcholecystectomy syndrome—the recurrence of symptoms similar to those before the procedure—occurs in 10% to 40% of patients. The time to the onset of symptoms can range from 2 days to up to 25 years.1–4 Women may be at higher risk, with symptoms recurring in 43% vs 28% in men.5

Postcholecystectomy syndrome can have a biliary or a nonbiliary cause. Biliary causes include strictures, retained calculi, dropped calculi, tumors, sphincter of Oddi dysfunction, and calculi in the cystic duct remnant. Nonbiliary causes include functional and organic disorders such as peptic ulcer disease, gastroesophageal reflux, pancreatic disease, hepatocellular disorders, coronary artery disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and intercostal neuritis.


2. Which is the most appropriate next step in the workup of this patient?

  • Ultrasonography of the right upper quadrant
  • Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP)
  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP)
  • Observation and reassurance
  • Review the operative record and consult with the surgeon

Although the patient is presenting with pain and fever, two features of the classic Charcot triad (pain, fever, jaundice) seen in cholangitis (infection of a bile duct), and although cholangitis almost confirms the diagnosis of common bile duct stones in a patient with gallstones (before or after cholecystectomy), other diagnoses to consider are bile duct injury, bile leak, and biloma.

Biloma can be detected with ultrasonography. Bile duct injuries are identified intraoperatively in up to 25% of patients. For those with an unrecognized injury, the clinical presentation is variable and depends on the type of injury. If a bile leak is present, patients present early, at a median of 3 days postoperatively. However, our patient presented with symptoms 4 months after her surgery. Patients with bile duct strictures without bile leak have a longer symptom-free interval and usually present with signs of biliary obstruction. Ultrasonography can then detect biliary dilatation.6

It would be very helpful to review the operative record and to talk to the surgeon to confirm that intraoperative cholangiography had not been done and to determine the level of difficulty of the surgery. (Intraoperative cholangiography involves the introduction of contrast dye into the biliary system by cannulation of the cystic duct or by direct injection into the common bile duct. An intraoperative cholangiogram is considered normal if the entire intrahepatic and extrahepatic biliary tree is seen to be filled with contrast.) A normal cholangiogram has a negative predictive value of 99.8% for the detection of ductal stones. Thus, a normal intraoperative cholangiogram can prevent unnecessary postoperative ECRP, since it almost always indicates a clean bile duct.7

Ultrasonography of the right upper quadrant has a low sensitivity (< 50%) for detecting common bile duct stones. However, it is highly operator-dependent, and it may be twice as sensitive if done by expert radiologists than by less experienced ones. Its limitations include poor visualization of the distal portion of the duct and low sensitivity in patients in whom the common bile duct is minimally dilated and also in patients with small stones. In most studies, however, it had a very high specificity—ie, greater than 95%.8

MRCP has a sensitivity of 82.6% and a specificity of 97.5% in detecting stones in the common bile duct.9 Therefore, normal results on abdominal ultrasonography and MRCP do not completely rule out stones.

Although this patient has a high pretest probability of having common bile duct stones, ERCP should be done only after a thorough review of the previous operative procedure.

Observation and reassurance are not appropriate in a patient with cholangitis, such as this patient, because waiting increases the risk of septicemia.


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