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Revista do Colégio Brasileiro de Cirurgiões

Print version ISSN 0100-6991

Rev. Col. Bras. Cir. vol.40 no.4 Rio de Janeiro July/Aug. 2013 



Acute intestinal obstruction due to gallstone ileus



Márcia Cristina de AlencastroI; Kaio Toledo CardosoII; Cecília Araújo MendesII; Yuri Longatto BoteonIII; Rodrigo Barros de CarvalhoIV; Gustavo Pereira Fraga, TCBC-SP, FACSV

IResident, Department of Surgery, Faculty of Medical Sciences, Unicamp
IIResident, Division of Trauma Surgery, Department of Surgery, Faculty of Medical Sciences, Unicamp
IIIResident, Division of Digestive System Diseases, Faculty of Medical Sciences, Unicamp
IVAttending Physician, Division of Trauma Surgery, Department of Surgery, Faculty of Medical Sciences,Unicamp
VCoordinator/Professor, Division of Trauma Surgery, Department of Surgery, Faculty of Medical Sciences, Unicamp

Address correspondence to




OBJECTIVE: Small bowel obstruction (SBO) due to gallstones (gallstone ileus) is an uncommon complication of cholelithiasis, for which there is no defined surgical procedure. The objective of this study was to perform a systematic review of the history, available image exams and clinical approach to the diagnosis and treatment of gallstone ileus.
METHOD: We conducted a retrospective study in a university hospital including all cases of SBO treated over a period of 23 years. According to the surgical treatment, the patients were divided into two groups: (1) enterolithotomy with posterior cholecystectomy (two-stage surgery); and (2) enterolithotomy, cholecystectomy and fistula closure (one-stage surgery).
RESULTS: Twelve patients were included in the study, including 11 females (91,6%), with a mean age of 72.2 years. All patients presented associated diseases, mainly arterial hypertension (75%). All except one patient had multiple SBO symptoms. Gallstone ileus diagnosis was made before laparotomy in six patients (50%). There were eight patients in group 1 and four in group 2, and the morbidity was, respectively, 33.3% and 8.3%. Overall mortality was 16.6% (one patient in each group).
CONCLUSION: Gallstone ileus should be suspected in the elderly with SBO symptoms. Early diagnosis can reduce post-operative complications. Treatment is urgent laparotomy and the surgical approach must be individualized for each case. The majority of patients in this study were treated with enterolithotomy, with cholecystectomy being performed later in two symptomatic patients.

Key words: Abdomen, acute. Intestinal obstruction. Ileum. Gallstones. Cholelithiasis/complications.




Biliary ileus (BI), first described by Erasmus Bartolim in 1654, is a rare cause of obstruction of the gastrointestinal tract (by gallstones) that may occur anywhere from the stomach to the rectum, the most common site being the small intestine1-4. It accounts for 1-3% of intestinal obstructions, and over 25% of occlusive situations in persons over 65 years2,5-8. Typically, BI starts with chronic cholelithiasis, which evolves with the formation of a cholecystoduodenal fistula, with the passing of a large calculus to the gastrointestinal tract, resulting in obstruction. Approximately 50% of patients with the disease have a history of gallstones, but only 0.3 to 1.5% of patients with gallstones present BI2,8-10.

Clinical examples are variable, inasmuch as the situation may be acute, chronic or intermitent9. In 50% of cases, diagnosis is made only during an exploratory laparotomy. Treatment consists of an enterotomy with removal of the calculus. However, in selected cases a cholecystectomy with fistula treatment may be indicated in the same surgical procedure3,8,11,12.

The aim of this study is to describe the experience of the management of patients with acute intestinal obstruction by BI, from diagnosis to definitive treatment.



The study was conducted through a retrospective analysis of medical records of patients admitted with acute abdominal obstruction at the Clinics Hospital of Unicamp, and treated by the staff of the Division of Trauma Surgery. In the period from January 1990 to April 2013, 12 cases were identified in which the intraoperative diagnosis was BI.

The following factors were analyzed: age, gender, initial clinical presentation, associated diseases, complementary imaging for diagnosis, preoperative diagnosis, surgical procedure performed and postoperative outcome. As for surgical treatment, patients were divided into two groups: 1) treatment of intestinal obstruction, without addressing the blockage in the right hypochondrium, aimed at carrying out the smallest possible procedure for the alleviation of the acute intestinal obstruction; and 2) treatment of the blockage in the right hypochondrium and the cholecystoduodenal fistula, with cholecystectomy and duodenorrhaphy associated with the desobstruction procedure, in a single surgery (single-stage treatment).

The study was approved by the Ethics in Research Committee of the institution.



Of the 12 patients surgically treated for BI, 11 (91.6%) were female. The age of the patients ranged from 57 to 88, with a mean of 72.2 years.

The clinical presentation was intestinal obstruction in ten patients (83.3%) and all of them showed absence of flatus and feces elimination for a period exceeding three days, associated with diffuse abdominal pain of varying intensity. Two patients (20%) had a history of pain in the right hypochondrium. Six patients (50%) presented vomiting on admission, and one of them reported the presence of "stones" in the vomit. One patient presented an intestinal sub-occlusion for 30 days and another had diarrhea and fever, associated with other signs and symptoms, showing the severity of the clinical situation, but also confusing the preoperative diagnosis. Two patients (20%) had previous abdominal surgery. All the individuals had at least one associated chronic disease: high blood pressure (nine cases), heart disease (three cases), diabetes mellitus (two cases), osteoarthritis, depression and hypothyroidism (one case each).

Five patients (41.6%) presented with clinical and laboratory signs of dehydration and two (16.6%) showed signs of peritonitis.

A simple radiographic examination (X-ray) of the abdomen was performed in the eleven cases. Six patients (50%) had small intestine distension with a air-fluid levels and intestinal edema (Figures 1A and 1B). Aerobilia was identified in two cases from simple X-rays of the abdomen (16.6% - Figure 1B). A complete ultrasound of the abdomen was performed on five patients (41.6%), showing aerobilia associated with a stone in the small intestine, cholecystoduodenal fistula and, in another case, it was conclusive for the diagnosis of BI. Computerized Tomography (CT) scan of the abdomen was performed on six patients (50%), showing aerobilia in ten cases (83.3%), as well as signs of cholecystitis; it also showed the stone impacted in the small intestine in three of these cases (Figures 2A, 2B and 2C). In one of these cases, there was evidence of stones in the stomach and duodenum, with an obstruction in the duodenojejunal junction.



BI was the preoperative diagnosis in six patients (50%), acute intestinal obstruction of unknown etiology in five patients (41.6%) and acute abdominal inflammation in another (8.3%). Time between admission and surgery ranged from nine hours to eight days (median 24 hours), the latter due to clinical conditions of the patients.

In one case, anupper endoscopy was performed preoperatively, showing a cholecystoduodenal fistula, duodenal obstruction by gallstones, and partial removal of these stones was performed.

All patients underwent exploratory laparotomy with a midline incision. Eight patients were included (66.6%) in group 1, not consecutively, merely, resolving the patient's intestinal obstruction (Figures 3 A, B and C). Four patients (33.3%) were included in group 2, with cholecystoduodenal fistula repair: cholecystectomy and duodenorrhaphy, associated with the desobstruction procedure. There was evidence of severe inflammatory obstruction in the right hypochondrium in all patients of both groups.

During the postoperative period, morbidity was 33.3% (Table 1). One patient had eventration, and we opted for non-operative treatment due to age and surgical risk; two patients had prolonged ileus, increasing hospitalization time, but progressed well with clinical treatment; one patient had surgical wound infection. Seven patients (66.7%) were discharged uneventfully.

Two patients (20%) died due to complications from chronic diseases. One patient in group 1 returned due to a recurrence of BI, and was retreated with a resection of the segment of the small intestine where the gallstone was impacted, primary anastomosis, cholecystectomy and suturing of the cholecystoduodenal fistula. She developed a stercoraceous fistula, and treated with an ileostomy. The patient died three months after the second procedure due to medical complications. The other case,returned after a self-inflicted stab wound to the abdomen during a psychotic episode. Exploratory laparotomy revealed no intra-abdominal injuries, but an enterectomy was performed on the segment where the gallstone was previously impacted due to its hardened appearance and partial stenosis of the ileum. This patient developed anastomotic dehiscence and peritonitis, eventually dying on the 5th postoperative day of relaparotomy due to infectious complications. There were not any duodenal fistulas in the four patients who underwent single-stage surgery, however.

Among the patients in group 1, who did not undergo cholecystectomy, two (one previously reported) needed retreatment, with removal of the gallbladder.


Table 2



Biliary ileus (BI) refers to a mechanical obstruction of any segment of the digestive tract caused by gallstones, which reach the viscera through a biliary fistula. The most frequent site of the impaction is the terminal ileum, which is the narrowest part of the small intestine2,3,8,11,13,14. Another site is the gastric outlet, causing stomach obstruction, which characterizes the Bouveret syndrome15-17.

The clinical picture is insidious and often there are no specific signs of biliary disease, which complicates the diagnosis. One should always suspect BI in the elderly with obstructions, however there are case reports showing the involvement of younger individuals. The mostly affected are the elderly, aged from 70 to 80 years, females and the obese, probably due to the higher incidence of lithiasis in the latter two groups2,3,11,18. The ratio of women to men affected is between 2.3:1 to 16:12,8. This higher incidence of BI in the elderly and in females was also observed in the present study.

The main etiopathogenesis is chronic calculous cholecystitis which evolves with inflammation of the tissues adjacent to the gallbladder, forming adhesions between it and the intestine, but a history of bile duct disease may not exist in one third of the patients13,14,18. The calculus generates progressive erosion of the neighboring walls, forming a cholecystoduodenal fistula and migrating through it. The size of the stones varies from 1.9 to 3.5 cm in diameter. Thus, approximately 90% of cases are due to biliary pathology. Nonetheless, the fistula has been described as resulting from a malignant tumor, peptic ulcer, Crohn's disease and trauma10,11,13.

The patient presents with nonspecific symptoms, with signs of acute abdomen obstruction, such as nausea, vomiting, distension and abdominal pain. Some patients may present obstructions of an intermittent nature, with periods of improvement, suggesting the scrolling phenomenon called "tumbling", which corresponds to the distal migration of the stone13,14,18-20. The presence of diarrhea is frequent, which may cause confusion with gastroenteritis. In this study it was observed that only one patient had diarrhea during treatment. The symptoms usually appear from 3 to 5 days before a physisian is sought2,6,9,19-21.

An abdominal X-ray may help in the preoperative stage and the most common radiological findings are: pneumobilia (presence of air in the bile duct), intestinal obstruction, visualization of an ectopic stone and the migration of a previously identified one. The former three correspond to the triad of Rigler and the identification of two of them is considered pathognomonic of BI, being found in 40 to 50% of cases. A fifth radiological sign has been described: the presence of air in the gall bladder, duodenum, or both, thereby forming two images of free fluid close to the first and second lumbar vertebrae13,14,19-23.

The abdominal ultrasound is useful for confirming the presence of cholelithiasis, and for showing a calcification image inside a looped intestinal segment, associated with distension of looped segments. In most of the references, ultrasound was not used as an isolated method for the diagnosis of BI21,24. The filling of the looped intestinal segments with a large amount of liquid and little gas favors the ultrasound diagnosis, and hinders that of the abdominal X-ray. When compared to radiography, ultrasound seems to be more sensitive to: initial obstruction of the small intestine, the presence of a small amount of air in the bile ducts or gallbladder, gallstones in atypical positions, concomitant calcifications, fistula between the gallbladder and the duodenum, and the presence of ascites or intestinal ischemia. The most important findings are: an altered gallbladder (more than with cholecystitis or gallbladder cancer), the presence of gas in the gallbladder or bile ducts, and looped intestinal segments filled with fluid, which can be followed to the site of the impaction of the stone24.

A CT scan, when compared to the two methods described above, purports to be more valuable, especially for identifying a mechanical intestinal obstruction, a small amount of air in the gallbladder and a gallstone11,22.

Endoscopic examinations may be useful both for the diagnosis and treatment of stones located in the duodenum or colon. The combination of imaging methods allows an earlier specific diagnosis, indicating a safer surgical treatment. In this study, the use of abdominal ultrasound and CT scan were decisive in the preoperative diagnosis of BI. However, there was a delay in the indication of a laparotomy in some cases at the expense of time spent in the diagnostic investigation and clinical compensation of the patient preoperatively. The preoperative diagnosis was correct in 50% of cases. In literature, the accuracy of preoperative diagnoses is from 13 to 48%2,21. For patients with severe associated illnesses and a high surgical risk, it is very risky to insist on non-operative treatment, monitoring the patient clinically and awaiting the elimination of the stone, although there are descriptions of this controversial conduct25. Some less invasive methods have been proposed for patients with a high surgical risk, depending on the location of the stone. An endoscopic removal can be attempted for stones located in the stomach and duodenum; a colonoscopy can be useful for diagnosis and even treatment of impacted stones in the colon and terminal ileum3,11.

The aim of the treatment is resolution of the intestinal obstruction. Since most patients with BI are of advanced age and usually have significant comorbidities, there is much controversy regarding the best surgical approach: isolated enterolithotomy or associated with treatment of the fistula and cholecystectomy, since in the latter case there would be an increase in surgical time, with increased morbidity and mortality, and no major benefits in the long term2,3,8,11,12,18,26,27. The resection of an intestinal segment is indicated when there is irreversible vascular compromise or perforation of bowel. If fistula closure is not done, the patients may rarely experience a number of complications, such as recurrent BI (5-17%), gallbladder carcinoma, cholangitis and cholecystitis4,7. The largest literature review, carried out by Reisner and Cohen2, that cites more than 1000 cases, showed that one-time surgery has a higher mortality (17%) when compared to those in which there was no manipulation of either the gallbladder or the fistula (11.7%). Therefore, the addition of a cholecystectomy and treatment of the fistula are justified only in selected cases, those that can endure a prolonged surgery time. For patients with persistent symptoms, a cholecystectomy should be performed later8,18,26,27.

The two-stage treatment is to resolve the intestinal obstruction in the first surgery and correct the cholecystoduodenal fistula in an elective treatment. This procedure also raises discussion. Many authors argue that the risk of recurrence of BI, from 5% to 17%, is high, so there is need for definitive treatment of the fistula13,21,28,29. Other complications arising from maintaining the cholecystoduodenal fistula center on the risk of the patient having intestinal malabsorption, weight loss, recurrent pain, recurrent cholecystitis, cholangitis and gallbladder cancer3,14,28. In a 1965 study, an incidence of 15% of gallbladder cancer in patients with BI was noted, compared to only 0.8% in patients who underwent elective cholecystectomy28. Some authors have reported spontaneous closure of the fistula and argue that, if the bile duct were open and there were no residual calcification, the cholecystoduodenal fistula could close spontaneously5,19,21. It is also emphasized that even if a fistula were present, the risk of complications is low and many fistulas are easily tolerated. Many authors consider that the second-stage surgery should only be carried out if there are symptoms related to the bile ducts or in patients with a high life expectancy3,18,19,27.

Surgery via laparoscopy is a good method for treatment by experienced teams, as it improves postoperative recovery26,27,30.

Postoperative BI is usually prolonged and the main complications are surgical wound infection, pneumonia and evisceration. The mortality rate varies from 5 to 25% in the larger studies2,14,18,21,27. In recent studies, a decrease in morbidity and mortality has been demonstrated in patients with BI, suggesting that the use of antibiotic prophylaxis, perioperative management and admission to intensive care units have important roles in reducing complications.

We conclude that BI is an uncommon cause of acute abdomen obstruction that requires a high index of suspicion, especially in elderly patients, for the diagnosis to be established. The management of BI should be individualized. The treatment of obstruction by way of gallstone removal by enterotomy is the initial choice for BI. A cholecystectomy and repair of the bilioenteric fistula can be performed along with stone removal. However, for patients with significant comorbidities and who are not able to endure a longer operative time, these procedures should be performed later.



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Address correspondence to:
Gustavo Pereira Fraga

Received on 15/08/2012
Accepted for publication 18/10/2012
Conflict of interest: none
Source of funding: none



Division of Trauma Surgery, Department of Surgery, Faculty of Medical Sciences, University of Campinas - Unicamp, Campinas, São Paulo State - SP, Brazil.

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