Bile Duct Cysts | Digestive Health Program | Loyola Medicine

Bile Duct Cysts (Choledochal Cysts)

Overview and Facts about Bile Duct Cysts (Choledochal Cysts)

Choledochal cysts are rare enlargements of the bile ducts, which are the network of tube-like structures in the digestive health system that are responsible for carrying bile from the liver to the small intestine for digestion. The condition is present at birth, and the majority of cases are discovered before the age of 10.

There are five different types of bile duct cysts, but the vast majority are considered “Type I” cysts. Type I cysts are pouches or spindle-shaped growths inside the liver portion of the digestive system.

Signs and Symptoms of Bile Duct Cysts (Choledochal Cysts)

Recognizing the signs and symptoms of bile duct cysts can become more difficult as people age. Babies born with bile duct cysts may show symptoms right away, while others do not develop symptoms until later in childhood. Some people even live with cysts until adulthood because they do not experience symptoms until then.

The main signs and symptoms of bile duct cysts are:

  • Abdominal mass due to build-up around the blockage and swelling of the bile duct, though being able to see this mass is rare and usually only happens in children
  • General pain in the abdomen
  • Jaundice, which is when the skin or whites of the eyes become yellow
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Pancreatitis, which is an inflammation of the pancreas

Causes and Risk Factors of Bile Duct Cysts (Choledochal Cysts)

The exact cause for bile duct cysts is unknown, but they are typically present at birth and thus are usually associated with fetal development abnormalities. Females account for about 75 percent of all cases.

These cysts are an inflammatory condition, so when they are left untreated they can cause inflammation and infection in the bile ducts as well as inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis). In infants, permanent liver damage like scarring or cirrhosis can occur. Older people usually just experience abdominal pain and occasional jaundice.

Tests and Diagnosis of Bile Duct Cysts (Choledochal Cysts)

Radiography testing, such as an ultrasound, MRI, or CT scan, is the best way to confirm the diagnosis of bile duct cysts. Doctors who perform these imaging tests can also use them to ensure there are no complications associated with the condition, such as stone formation or malignancy.

An MRI of the bile ducts involves no injections or endoscopy, which is when a device is inserted through a patient’s mouth to view the digestive system. Because of this, MRI is typically the preferred diagnostic method.

Treatment and Care for Bile Duct Cysts (Choledochal Cysts)

The only real treatment for bile duct cysts is removal surgery and reconstruction of the duct. Merely draining the cyst is ineffective and can lead to future complications. If the ducts cannot be reconstructed, the doctor will need to sew them to the intestine so that bile can drain freely out of them.