Understanding ERCP

What is ERCP?

Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography, or ERCP, is a specialized technique used to study the bile ducts, pancreatic duct and gallbladder. Ducts are drainage routes; the drainage channels from the liver are called bile or biliary ducts. The pancreatic duct is the drainage channel from the pancreas.

How is ERCP performed?

ERCP is generally well tolerated and does not usually cause pain or significant discomfort. Typically, your doctor will give you a sedative and/or a painkiller to help you relax and tolerate the examination.  During ERCP, your doctor will pass an endoscope through your mouth, esophagus and stomach into the duodenum (first part of the small intestine). An endoscope is a thin, flexible tube that lets your doctor see inside your bowels. After your doctor sees the common opening to the ducts from the liver and pancreas, called the major duodenal papilla, your doctor will pass a narrow plastic tube called a catheter through the endoscope and into the ducts. Your doctor will inject a contrast material (dye) into the pancreatic or biliary ducts and will take X-rays.

What are possible complications of ERCP?

ERCP is a well-tolerated procedure when performed by doctors who are specially trained and experienced in the technique. Although complications requiring hospitalization can occur, they are uncommon. Complications can include pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), infections, bowel perforation and bleeding. Some patients can have an adverse reaction to the sedative used. Sometimes the procedure cannot be completed for technical reasons.

Risks vary, depending on why the test is performed, what is found during the procedure, what therapeutic intervention is undertaken, and what group of patients is being studied. For example, patients with major medical problems are at a higher risk for complications. Patients undergoing therapeutic ERCP, such as for stone removal, face some complications that are not encountered with purely diagnostic ERCP. Your doctor will discuss your likelihood of complications before you undergo the test.

What can I expect after ERCP?

If you have ERCP as an outpatient, you will be observed for complications until most of the effects of the medications have worn off before being sent home. You might experience bloating or pass gas because of the air introduced during the examination. Your doctor will let you know how soon you can resume your usual diet.

Someone must accompany you home from the procedure because of the sedatives used during the examination. Even if you feel alert after the procedure, the sedatives can affect your judgment and reflexes for the rest of the day.

CONDITIONS OF THE GI TRACT