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Pediatric Cholecystitis Workup

  • Author: Steven M Schwarz, MD, FAAP, FACN, AGAF; Chief Editor: Carmen Cuffari, MD  more...
Updated: Jul 21, 2016

Approach Considerations

Plain abdominal radiography may be used for initial screening in patients with abdominal pain. Abdominal ultrasonography has become the diagnostic tool of choice in evaluating cholelithiasis, but it is less accurate in cholecystitis.

Go to Imaging in Acalculous Cholecystitis and Imaging in Acute Cholecystitis for more complete information on these topics.


Laboratory Testing

In assessing for cholecystitis, appropriate laboratory studies include the following blood tests:

  • Complete blood count (CBC)
  • Gamma-glutamyltransferase (GGT)
  • Amylase
  • Direct and indirect bilirubin
  • Alkaline phosphatase
  • Transaminases

In addition, urinalysis should be performed.

In acute cholecystitis, the white blood cell count is elevated, with a predominance of polymorphonuclear cells and bands. Bilirubin, alkaline phosphatase, and GGT levels rise secondary to a blocked biliary system.

The traditional cholestatic picture involves direct hyperbilirubinemia, with a direct-to-indirect ratio approaching 1:1. Amylase may be elevated even in the absence of obstructive pancreatitis. In addition, transaminases may show mild elevation but not a significant increase, unless obstruction has been severe enough to cause hepatocyte damage.

Transaminase levels are more likely to rise early in patients with obstruction of the common bile duct.


Plain Abdominal Radiography

Calcifications representing radiopaque gallstones may be observed in the gallbladder or ductal system. Radiopaque gallstones contain more calcium bilirubinate and are more common in the pediatric population, especially in infants and children. In addition, complications such as porcelain gallbladder and emphysematous cholecystitis may be visible on radiographs, although these complications are rare in children.


Abdominal Ultrasonography

The reliability of ultrasonography for detecting either opaque or lucent gallstones is well established. Results are immediate, and accessibility is usually excellent. The accuracy of abdominal ultrasonography in depicting gallstones is estimated to be more than 95%. However, its reliability in the diagnosis of acute cholecystitis is more limited.

Ultrasonographic findings in acute cholecystitis include a discrete echodensity representing the gallstone, the presence of sludge, and, possibly, ductal anomalies or dilation. The gallbladder may be dilated with thickened walls.

Imhof et al found gallbladder wall thickness of more than 3.5 mm to be a reliable independent diagnostic indicator of cholecystitis.[13]

Gallstones are often in a dependent position in the gallbladder and may move as the patient changes position.


Oral Cystography

Oral cystography has been used in the past, but has been largely abandoned because of the refinement of ultrasonography. Oral cystography involves the ingestion of contrast material that is secreted in the bile. Lack of visualization of the gallbladder indicates cholelithiasis. This procedure is limited by liver dysfunction and malabsorption. In addition, the contrast tablets have been associated with emesis and diarrhea, further complicating effectiveness.


Biliary Scintography

The most accurate tool in the diagnosis of acute cholecystitis is biliary scintiphotography, otherwise known as the hepatic 2,6-dimethyliminodiacetic acid or hepatoiminodiacetic acid (HIDA) scanning.

This procedure involves the intravenous injection of substances labeled with technetium Tc 99m (99m Tc), taken into the hepatocytes, and excreted into the biliary system. Normal hepatic uptake without gallbladder visualization is diagnostic, but false-positive results occur with decreased biliary function secondary to prolonged fasting and the use of hyperalimentation. Morphine augmentation of this test has been shown to decrease false positive results.

Induced spasm of the sphincter of Oddi increases biliary pressure and enhances gallbladder filling. This test may be unnecessary, however, because the clinical diagnosis and treatment are determined by the symptoms and presence of gallstones or sludge.

Ultrasonography has proved its usefulness in depicting gallstones, does not rely on contrast, and, therefore, may be safer.


Magnetic Resonance Cholangiopancreatography

Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP) scanning can be used in the diagnosis of cholecystitis, especially in cases in which ultrasonography is not helpful.

Ultrasonographic results may be compromised by ileus, surgical incisions, and coexisting diseases, especially those in patients who are critically ill. MRCP may be more sensitive than ultrasonography in detecting inflammation within and around the gallbladder, as well as within the biliary tree. Although frequently used in the past, CT scanning is not generally recommended in pediatric patients because of the associated extensive radiation exposure.


Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography

If the patient displays signs and symptoms of choledocholithiasis, endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) may be used preoperatively for exploration of the common bile duct. This procedure generally follows identification of common duct stones, either by ultrasound or by MRCP scanning. ERCP is both diagnostic and therapeutic, because it may be used for stent placement, basket retrieval, or papillotomy to allow passage of gallstones; however, available choledochoscopes may be too large for small patients.

Choledocholithiasis complicates the picture of cholecystitis and usually requires adjunctive procedures to cholecystectomy. If obstruction of the common bile duct is suspected preoperatively, perform ERCP before surgery with papillotomy, stent placement, or basket retrieval.

If gallstones are found intraoperatively, several techniques can be used. The common bile duct can be flushed with saline or opened and explored. Additionally, an endoscope or nephroureteroscope may be used intraoperatively for basket retrieval.

Endoscopic extraction of a cholesterol stone is demonstrated in the image below.

Photograph illustrating the role of endoscopic ret Photograph illustrating the role of endoscopic retrieval of common bile duct stones. The picture shows a balloon placed via the endoscope into the ampulla for extraction of a cholesterol stone that was occluding the common bile duct.

Endoscopic Ultrasonography

In adult studies of suspected choledocholithiasis, the emerging technique of endoscopic ultrasonography (EUS) has been shown to detect more than 90% of common bile duct stones. This diagnostic modality is of particular use in patients with recurrent gallstone pancreatitis. In one study, EUS was able to detect stones in 77% of patients in whom CT scanning, standard biliary tract ultrasound, and/or ERCP findings were negative.[14] .

In patients with acute pancreatitis, the sensitivity and specificity of this procedure are approximately 98%. Where EUS is not available or feasible (eg, in young children), MRCP (discussed above) is also a highly sensitive and specific modality. In fact, a 2015 Cochrane Review showed both EUS and MRCP have high diagnostic accuracy for detection of common bile duct stones.[15]  Because these studies demonstrate similar diagnostic accuracy, the choice of study (particularly in children) often depends on availability.


Cholecystokinin Stimulation

Cholecystokinin (CCK) stimulation may be used during other imaging studies, such as cholescintigraphy. Gallbladder dyskinesia after CCK administration is diagnostic of gallbladder hypofunction and may be useful in discerning acalculous or chronic cholecystitis and acute inflammation.


Histologic Findings

The histology of the inflamed gallbladder is fairly straightforward.

Acute cholecystitis causes changes similar to those of any acute inflammation. Edema, leukocytic infiltration, and vascular congestion are prominent. Inflammation may progress to abscess formation, gangrenous necrosis, and perforation, especially in acalculous cholecystitis.

Chronic cholecystitis produces long-term inflammatory changes, with lymphocytes, plasma cells, and macrophages scattered throughout the mucosa. Subserosal fibrous tissue forms and may extend into the subepithelial layer with increasing disease severity. As the mucosa proliferates, epithelium may become buried in crypts known as Rokitansky-Aschoff sinuses.

Over time, chronic obstruction and inflammation may lead to the deposit of calcium within the gallbladder wall, causing the porcelain gallbladder, which is visible on flat plate imaging of the abdomen. Another variation is xanthogranulomatous cholecystitis, in which chronic inflammation leads to a shrunken, nodular gallbladder with many foci of necrosis and hemorrhage. This condition may be confused with malignancy but is actually benign.

Hydrops of the gallbladder may also develop with chronic obstruction. This is characterized by a distended lumen and atrophic walls. Obstruction of the common bile duct may cause histologic change in nearby organs. Ductal hyperplasia ensues from obstruction and distension, and periportal fibrosis in the liver may occur with hepatic bile flow obstruction. Gallstones may also cause transient acute pancreatitis, resulting in characteristic histologic changes in the pancreas.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Steven M Schwarz, MD, FAAP, FACN, AGAF Professor of Pediatrics, Children's Hospital at Downstate, State University of New York Downstate Medical Center

Steven M Schwarz, MD, FAAP, FACN, AGAF is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Nutrition, American Association for Physician Leadership, New York Academy of Medicine, Gastroenterology Research Group, American Gastroenterological Association, American Pediatric Society, North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition, Society for Pediatric Research

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Andre Hebra, MD Chief, Division of Pediatric Surgery, Professor of Surgery and Pediatrics, Medical University of South Carolina College of Medicine; Surgeon-in-Chief, Medical University of South Carolina Children's Hospital

Andre Hebra, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, Florida Medical Association, Society of American Gastrointestinal and Endoscopic Surgeons, Children's Oncology Group, International Pediatric Endosurgery Group, American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Surgeons, American Medical Association, American Pediatric Surgical Association, Society of Laparoendoscopic Surgeons, South Carolina Medical Association, Southeastern Surgical Congress, Southern Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Mary L Windle, PharmD Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Carmen Cuffari, MD Associate Professor, Department of Pediatrics, Division of Gastroenterology/Nutrition, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

Carmen Cuffari, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Gastroenterology, American Gastroenterological Association, North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition, Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada

Disclosure: Received honoraria from Prometheus Laboratories for speaking and teaching; Received honoraria from Abbott Nutritionals for speaking and teaching. for: Abbott Nutritional, Abbvie, speakers' bureau.

Additional Contributors

Jeffrey J Du Bois, MD Chief of Children's Surgical Services, Division of Pediatric Surgery, Kaiser Permanente, Women and Children's Center, Roseville Medical Center

Jeffrey J Du Bois, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Surgeons, American Pediatric Surgical Association, California Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Melissa Miller, MD Department of Surgery, Medical University of South Carolina College of Medicine

Melissa Miller, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Medical Association and American Medical Student Association/Foundation

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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Diagram illustrating the technique for laparoscopic cholecystectomy. The gallbladder is retracted with grasping 5-mm laparoscopic instruments, and clips are applied over the cystic duct and artery.
Photograph of a gallbladder filled with numerous small cholesterol stones.
Operative photograph illustrating the position of small (5 mm, 10 mm) trocars in the abdomen of a 12-year-old child undergoing laparoscopic cholecystectomy. By using this technique, the surgeon can avoid large incisions and remove the gallbladder safely.
Photograph illustrating the role of endoscopic retrieval of common bile duct stones. The picture shows a balloon placed via the endoscope into the ampulla for extraction of a cholesterol stone that was occluding the common bile duct.
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