Peter B. Cotton
11. ERCP: Risks, prevention, and management
Peter B. Cotton
ERCP is the most risky procedure that endoscopists perform on a regular basis. There is potential for technical and clinical
failure, and for misdiagnosis, and some small risk to staff, but the main interest is in the risk for adverse clinical events.
A consensus definition of complications, and of their severity, and a series of careful prospective studies, has clarified
the degree of risk in different circumstances, and the relevant risk factors. This process has allowed a clearer picture to
emerge of the riskbenefit ratios in different clinical scenarios, and a greater ability to advise patients about their options. Also, the extensive
experience of the last 30 years permits authoritative statements on how to minimize the likelihood of complications, and how
to deal with difficult situations when they arise.
ERCP has become popular worldwide because it can provide significant benefit in many clinical contexts. Sadly, it has also
caused considerable harm in a small number of patients. Thus, it is crucial for practitioners and potential patients to understand
the predictors of benefit, and of risk. Defining positive and negative outcomes has been a significant challenge , but much useful information has been gathered from increasingly sophisticated outcomes studies over the last two decades.
This contribution will concentrate on the risks and risk factors, will emphasize ways to reduce them, and will provide guidance
about management when adverse events occur.
The risks of ERCP
The concept of 'risk' indicates that something can 'go wrong', and is therefore best defined as a deviation from the plan. This assumes that a plan has been clearly formulated. The patient's
perspective and understanding of the plan is enshrined in the process of informed consent. Deviations are best described generically
as 'unplanned events'.
Unplanned events of ERCP are of four types:
- risks to staff;
- technical failure;
- clinical failure;
- unplanned adverse eventscomplications.
Risks for endoscopists and staff
The endoscopy unit is not a dangerous place, but there are a few risks for the ERCP endoscopist and staff.
The possibility of transmission of infection exists, but should be entirely preventable with standard precautions (gowns,
gloves, and eye protection) and assiduous disinfection protocols (Endoscopy Practice and Safety Chapter 7).
Certain immunizations are also appropriate. Rarely, staff may become sensitive to materials used in the ERCP process, such
as glutaraldehyde, or latex gloves.
The risks of radiation are minimized by appropriate education, shielding, and exposure monitoring .
Many older endoscopists have neck problems caused by looking down fiberscopes, a situation aggravated by ERCP rooms where
the video and X-ray monitors are not side by side. Busy ERCP practitioners sometimes complain also of 'elevator thumb'. A Canadian survey found that more than half of 114 endoscopists performing ERCP had some attributable musculo-skeletal problem
Not all ERCP procedures are successful technically. It may prove impossible to reach the papilla, to gain access to the duct
of interest, or to complete the necessary therapeutic maneuvers. The chance of failure depends upon several factors.
An important determinant of the chance of success is the level of expertise (of the endoscopist and team). There are now good
data to show that more active ERCP endoscopists have better results , as applies in surgery .
The risk of technical failure increases with the complexity of the problem. Any procedure can turn out to be technically challenging
(e.g. when the papilla is hiding within a diverticulum), but some can be expected to be difficult beforehand (e.g. in patients
who have previously undergone Billroth II gastrectomy). The concept of a scale of difficulty was first published by Schutz
and Abbot . Modifications led to a scale with three levels .
Degree of difficulty scale for ERCP procedures (Fig. 1)
Standard procedures which any endoscopist providing ERCP services should be able to complete to a reasonable level of competence
(say 90%). This includes deep selective cannulation, diagnostic sampling, standard biliary sphincterotomy, removal of stones
(up to 10 mm in diameter), and the management of low biliary obstruction and postoperative leaks.
Advanced procedures which require technical expertise beyond standard training, for example cannulation of the minor papilla,
diagnostic ERCP after Billroth II gastrectomy, large stones (needing lithotripsy), and the management of benign biliary strictures
and hilar tumors.
Tertiary procedures, which are normally offered only in tertiary referral centres, such as Billroth II therapeutics, intrahepatic
stones, complex pancreatic treatments, and sphincter manometry. Manometry is included at the tertiary level, not because it
is technically challenging, but because the overall management of patients with suspected sphincter dysfunction is particularly
difficult (and the risks are greater).
A confounding issue when trying to assess technical success or failure is how well the goal of the procedure is, or can be,
defined beforehand [1,4]. When the intent is obvious, e.g. to remove a known stone, the resulting outcome is unequivocal. However, ERCP is often used
to make or confirm a diagnosis, and then to perform treatment 'if appropriate', so that defining intent, and thus 'success' and 'failure', may be more subjective. Also, endoscopists have different thresholds for attempting therapy. Some may back away from a large
stone, and count the case as a success for good judgement rather than as a technical failure. Treatment will not even be considered
if the diagnosis is not made (e.g. if cannulation fails and a stone is missed), but such a case usually will not be counted
as a failure of stone treatment [10,11]. Thus, the success literature should be viewed with some skepticism.
Risk consequences of technical failure
There are good data showing that failed procedures carry more complications than successful ones. Failure usually necessitates
repeat ERCP, or a percutaneous or surgical procedure, which bring additional and significant costs and risks . Strictly speaking, on an 'intention to treat basis', any complications of these subsequent procedures should be attribute to the initial ERCP attempt.
Clinical success is dependent upon technical success, but the reverse is not necessarily true. A procedure may be completed
technically in an exemplary fashion, but with no resulting benefit. This would be true certainly when the indication is not
Our aim is to make patients 'better', but defining precisely what that means can also be a challenge [1,4,13]. In some contexts (e.g. stone extraction, biliary stenting for low tumors) it is reasonable to assume that technical success
will almost guarantee clinical success, at least in the short to medium term. However, some of those patients will have recurrent
problems (e.g. new stones and stent occlusion), as detailed later, so that the time frame of measurement is relevant to success.
It may be helpful to distinguish between initial 'primary' failure, and 'secondary' failure, which means a relapse of the same problem.
It is also difficult to measure the success or failure of interventions in patients who have intermittent problems such as
recurrent pancreatitis, or episodes of pain suspected due to sphincter dysfunction. The true outcome in these cases can be
measured only after months or years. Furthermore, the clinical response may be incomplete, with a reduction, but not elimination,
of attacks of pancreatitis, or some diminution in the overall burden of pain. The question then is how precisely to measure
this 'pain burden' (which may fluctuate from day to day, or week to week), and how much of a reduction constitutes 'success'? Progress in this area will come only if we have carefully defined outcome metrics, good baseline evaluation, and structured
objective follow-up . Quality of life assessment should feature in these contexts. We are developing a 'Pain-burden' scoring tool. This is used to follow patients sequentially, and incorporates our validated Digestive Quality of life instrument,
the DDQ-15 .
Unplanned adverse clinical eventscomplications
Unplanned events are deviations from the expectations of the endoscopist, and of the patient (as defined by the process of
informed consent). Rarely, the outcome of a procedure may be better than anticipated, for example, finding a treatable benign
lesion (such as a stone) in a jaundiced patient with suspected malignancy. However, most unplanned clinical events associated
with procedures are unwelcome, and are often called 'adverse events'. Some are significant enough to be called 'complications'.
When does an event become a complication?
Some adverse events are relatively trivial (such as brief hypoxia easily managed with supplemental oxygen, or transient bleeding
which stops or is stopped during the procedure). The word 'complication' is not appropriate for these events, not least because of the medico-legal connotations. However, all unexpected and adverse
events should be documented and tracked for quality improvement purposes.
The level of severity at which an adverse clinical event becomes a 'complication' is an arbitrary decision, but an important one, since definitions are essential if meaningful data are to be collected and
compared. A consensus workshop defined complications of ERCP in 1991 . Whilst the document focused on the complications of sphincterotomy, the principles and definitions apply to all aspects
- An adverse event.
- Attributable to the procedure.
- Requiring treatment in hospital.
Not all complications are of equal significance, so the workshop also recommended an arbitrary scale of severity, based mainly
on the length of hospitalization required, and the need for intensive care and/or surgery (Fig. 2).
- Mild: 13 nights in hospital.
- Moderate: 49 nights.
- Severe: 10 nights or more, or surgery, or ICU admission.
- Fatal: death attributable to the procedure.
The workshop also recommended working definitions of the commonest complications (Fig. 3).
These concepts and definitions have been adopted widely, and have been used in many subsequent studies of ERCP outcomes. This
has helped considerably in the attempt to better understand the predictors of good and bad outcomes. If surgeons and interventional
radiologists used a similar lexicon, it would be easier to compare their outcomes outside the context of formal randomized
Types of adverse clinical events
Unplanned adverse events can be categorized broadly into four groups
- Equipment malfunction.
- Medication and sedation issues.
- Direct events: those which occur at sites which have been traversed or treated during the endoscopic procedure (e.g. perforation,
bleeding or pancreatitis).
- Indirect events: those which occur in other organs (e.g. heart, lungs, and kidneys) as a result of the procedure. Indirect
events are more difficult to recognize and document because they may not become apparent until several days after the procedure,
when the patient has returned home or to other clinical supervision.
Timing of events and attribution
Most adverse events are recognized during or shortly after procedures, but some happen beforehand (e.g. as a result of some
aspect of preparation), and some are apparent only later (e.g. delayed bleeding after sphincterotomy).
For adverse events which occur before and during procedures, it is important to note whether the examination had to be terminated
early, or could be completed.
The 1991 consensus definition of complications  includes the phrase 'attributable to the procedure'. Attribution is not always clear-cut, especially when there is a delay. Is a cardiopulmonary event counted if it occurs a
week or two after ERCP, or only if there is some other linking factor (e.g. some important medication was stopped for the
To cover this point, the consensus workshop suggested that direct events (as defined above) are always attributable, even
if they do not occur or become apparent for several weeks (e.g. delayed bleeding). However, we agreed an arbitrary time limit
of 3 days for indirect events, such as cardiopulmonary problems.
As mentioned above, there is also the issue of how to report the complications of other procedures (e.g. percutaneous interventions)
which become necessary when ERCP fails .
A dataset for unplanned events
This is shown in Fig. 3.
Overall complication rates
Rates of complications published before the 1991 consensus definitions are difficult to interpret due to a lack of consistency
in reporting .
Many reviews and case series have been published subsequently . Some of the most recent single- and multicenter data are summarized in Figs 4 and 5.
Overall it appears that complications occur in some 510% of ERCP procedures. However, these global figures take no account of severity, and come from a huge variety of procedures
performed on a broad spectrum of patients in different contexts. It is now clear that the risks vary considerably with the
indication and setting, so that we need more focused data. Patients should be informed about the likely risk in their own
Accuracy of data collection
An important issue affecting the accuracy of reported data is the method of collection. Retrospective studies are known to
underestimate complication rates, since many delayed events are missed . This may apply particularly to the large volume centres (who publish most) since the encounters often are brief and most
patients return home, often some distance away, for further care. The most reliable data come from prospective studies which
include a routine 30 day follow-up visit or call [44,45], but this is labor intensive and rarely done outside of research studies.
Changes in complications over time
Bleeding, perforation, and infection were the most common complications of ERCP in the early days of ERCP and biliary sphincterotomy
; now pancreatitis dominates (Figs 4 and 5). This change appears to be due mainly to a progressive reduction in the risk of bleeding, perforation, and infection as
training and techniques have improved, and maybe also to a relative increase in pancreatitis, as ERCP has been used more widely
for more speculative (and risky) indications, such as obscure abdominal pain, sphincter dysfunction, and recurrent pancreatitis.
Complication rates at MUSC
We have used the same definitions and database for the prospective recording of all endoscopic procedures at MUSC for more
than 10 years. Delayed complications that we are aware of are reported to the group and added to the database at a weekly
pancreatico-biliary service meeting, but there has been no routine follow-up call. From studies performed by ourselves , and others [46,47] it is certain that some delayed complications are not recorded, but the system has been consistent, so that trends are probably
The overall rate of known complications in almost 10 000 procedures was 4.08%, with severe complications at 0.33%, and 7 deaths (0.07%) (Fig. 6). Pancreatitis has accounted for two-thirds of all recorded complications, occurring at a rate now of around 2.7%. The incidence
of severe pancreatitis (more than 10 days in hospital, ICU admission, pseudocyst, or surgery) was 0.14%.
There has been a gradual reduction in the rates (and severity) of complications over the years (Fig. 7), despite an increasing proportion of complex and more risky level 3 procedures.
More details of specific complications and their management are given in the relevant later sections.
General risk issues
Endoscopists must be aware of the factors that can increase the risk of ERCP. These are both general and specific. General
risks include the skill of the individual endoscopist (and team), the clinical status of the patient, and the precise nature
of the procedure.
Details of the specific risks, methods to minimize them, and recommendations for management, are given below. Here we document
some important general points.
There are now significant data showing that more experienced endoscopists usually have higher success rates and lower rates
of complications than those who are less active, even when dealing with more complex cases [7,24,28,4143]. This fact has important implications for training, credentialing and informed consent. Lack of experience increases the
risk of technical failure. Failures carry risks also of the subsequent needed interventions. In one analysis, failed ERCPs
carried three times the complication rate of successful ones (21.5 vs. 7.3%) . The association between inexperience and poor outcomes has been well documented for major surgical procedures .
Patient-related issues; clinical status, indications, and comorbidities
Much attention has been paid to analysing the characteristics of patients which may affect the risk of performing ERCP [30,48].
Age itself is not a risk factor for ERCP complications . Many studies now testify to the safety of performing diagnostic and therapeutic procedures in infants , children , and the elderly [52,53].
Illness and associated conditions
Adverse events are more likely to occur in patients who are already severely ill, for example with acute cholangitis , and in those with substantial comorbidities. The most important comorbidities are cardiopulmonary fragility (posing risks
for sedation and anesthesia), immunosuppression, and coagulopathies (including therapeutic anticoagulation). It would be helpful
if there were an agreed index or score that reflected the degree of risk, but none of the published instruments really fit
the ERCP context. The American Society for Anesthesiology (ASA) score is often used in surgical practice as a guide to the
risk for sedation and anesthesia, but this appears unhelpful in the context of ERCP . This is because the risk is much more dependant on the indication for the procedure.
ERCP appears to be safe when needed for management of stones in pregnant patients .
Fortunately it is clear that the risks of ERCP are lowest in those patients with the 'best' indications, i.e. duct stones, biliary leaks, and low tumors. Conversely, the pioneering studies by Freeman and colleagues
have revealed the substantial risks involved in performing ERCP in patients with obscure abdominal pain ('suspected sphincter dysfunction') . This was emphasized strongly by the NIH 'State of the Science' conference on ERCP in 2002 . Sadly, it is true that 'ERCP is most dangerous for those who need it least'.
In some series, but not in all, the presence of a peripapillary diverticulum appears to be a risk factor [59,60]. With suitable precautions, patients with implanted pacemakers or defibrillators can be treated safely .
A normal-sized bile duct was earlier believed to increase the risk of post-ERCP pancreatitis [62,63], but this is a surrogate for sphincter dysfunction, and does not apply to patients with stones [64,65].
Complication-specific risk factors
Patient risk factors for specific complications are detailed below. For example, Billroth II gastrectomy carries an increased
risk for afferent loop perforation, and coagulopathies and certain medications increase the risk of bleeding. Equally, patients
with hilar tumors and sclerosing cholangitis are at greater risk for septic complications because it may prove difficult to
provide complete drainage.
Diagnostic or therapeutic?
Most people assume that therapeutic ERCP is more dangerous than diagnostic procedures. This is true in several reported series:
5.4 vs. 1.4% , 9.1 vs. 1.8% , and 4.6 vs. 2.1% , but not in another small series (7.4 vs. 17%)  (Fig. 5).
Sedation, cardiopulmonary events, and intubation carry the same risks whether the procedure is diagnostic or therapeutic.
Therapeutic procedures do carry their own specific risks, e.g. bleeding and perforation after sphincterotomy, or infection
after attempted pseudocyst drainage. These complications can be serious, so it would also seem logical that the likelihood
of a severe complication would be greater after therapeutic procedures. Remarkably, our own series shows very similar complication
rates for diagnostic and therapeutic ERCP, and the risk of severe or fatal complications was actually slightly higher for
diagnostic procedures (0.65 vs. 0.37%) (Fig. 8). It is worth noting that diagnostic ERCP in some patients may actually be riskier if not followed immediately by appropriate
therapy (e.g. in a patient with malignant obstructive jaundice or proven sphincter dysfunction). Our 'diagnostic' procedures were simply those that involved no therapy, so some of them may have been technical failures. The statistics may
well be different on an intention to treat basis.
The implications of the specific therapeutic procedures will be considered further when addressing the individual risks, but
some details are given here.
The commonest therapeutic ERCP procedure, performed in enormous numbers throughout the world. As a result, much of the risk
literature refers specifically to biliary sphincterotomy [15,17,19,20,22,31,32,4244,66], and mainly in the context of stones [47,66,65,6769]. Representative series indicate an overall morbidity of 5.39.8%, with attributable mortality considerably below 1% (Fig. 5). Our overall complication rate for a series of 855 biliary sphincterotomies for stone at MUSC was 2.6%; in all other contexts
combined (sphincter dysfunction, pancreatitis, stenting) it was 7.1%. Altogether there were 16 severe complications of biliary
sphincterotomy (0.6%), with no deaths.
Pancreatic sphincterotomy (of the major and minor papilla) is used much less frequently than biliary sphincterotomy, but its
popularity is increasing. It is performed both with a pull-type sphincterotome and with a needle-knife over a stent . Few studies have analyzed its specific complications . The overall complication rate in 1615 pancreatic sphincterotomies at MUSC (many of whom underwent biliary sphincterotomy
at the same time) was 6.9%; 80% of these were pancreatitis. There was only one recorded sphincterotomy perforation, and only
three (0.2%) severe complications, with no related deaths.
The needle-knife precut technique is useful and safe in treatment of impacted stones , and is used by many as the primary method for performing pancreatic sphincterotomy (over a stent), and for biliary sphincterotomy
after Billroth 11 gastrectomy. However, precutting used purely as a biliary access technique is contentious [75,76]. Much of the literature suggests that it is valuable and safe when used for good indications by experts , but there is ample evidence, not least from lawsuits, that it is dangerous when used by inexperienced endoscopists, especially
when the indication is not strong. Several studies (including centers with considerable experience) clearly show that precutting
increases substantially the risk of pancreatitis and of perforation [22,24,25,36,44]. It has been suggested that precutting has received a bad reputation only because it may used as a last resort, after much
other manipulation, and that it may be safe when used early in the cannulation process. However, it seems a poor alternative
to good standard methods.
Variants of the precut technique have been described [88,89], including using a standard pull-type sphincterotome in the pancreatic duct. Despite good experience with this method reported
from one center , this seems to be courting disaster.
The data clearly indicate that precut access techniques should be avoided by inexperienced endoscopists, especially when there
is little or no evidence for biliary pathology requiring treatment.
Biliary and pancreatic sphincterotomy sometimes need to be repeated, for recurrent stones or stenosis. Whether the second
procedure carries increased risk clearly depends on the indication, and on the size of the prior procedure [91,92]. One study showed a significant increase in the risk of both bleeding (from 1.7 to 5%) and of perforation (from 1 to 8%),
but a reduction in pancreatitis (from 5.5 to 1%) when comparing repeat biliary sphincterotomies with index cases . These factors are discussed further in the specific risk sections.
Balloon sphincter dilation
As endoscopic stone extraction became more frequently used in relatively fit and young patients (after the advent of laparoscopic
cholecystectomy), there was increasing interest in trying to further reduce the (albeit small) risks of sphincterotomy, by
using balloon dilation of the papilla instead [94,95]. Since the main concern about this technique is the risk of provoking pancreatitis, it will be discussed further in that
The increasing familiarity and confidence of endoscopists with polypectomy, mucosal resection, and complex ERCP has led many
to perform excision of the major papilla for treatment of adenomas. The techniques (including temporary pancreatic stenting)
are now fairly well established , but there is continuing concern about the precise indications  and the likelihood of recurrence. The immediate risks are bleeding, pancreatitis, and perforation. One large series of 70
cases reported 10 complications (14%), with bleeding in 4, pancreatitis in 5, and mild perforation in 1, with one-third of
the adenomas recurring after a median follow-up of only 7 months .
Biliary stenting is widely used for the management of leaks and tumors. It carries the same general risks as any ERCP procedure,
although the presence of a pancreatic tumor may protect somewhat against pancreatitis. A small biliary sphincterotomy is not
necessary in most cases , but wise in hilar tumors, since it may prevent pancreatitis, and also facilitate the placement of two stents .
Biliary stenting is most risky when it fails, or when drainage is incomplete. This commonly leads to sepsis, and carries the
risks of repeat procedures (whether ERCP or percutaneous). The chance of failure, and of complications, is considerably greater
with lesions involving the liver hilum. The specific risks of stenting (and pancreatic stenting) are discussed later.
Endoscopic drainage of pseudocysts through the stomach wall or duodenum carries a significant risk of bleeding, perforation,
and infection .
Reducing the risks of ERCP: general issues
Methods to minimize specific risks are detailed below for each of the main complications. However, there are several general
strategies which should be understood. Clearly it is helpful to maximize the clinical and technical expertise of the endoscopist
and the assisting team, and to follow accepted standards of practice. Since complications cannot be avoided completely, it
is also mandatory to ensure that patients and those close to them are fully informed about the key issues.
The contract with the patient; informed consent
It is always the responsibility of endoscopists to assure themselves that the potential benefits of the proposed procedure
exceed the potential risks, and to convey that information clearly to their patients (Chapter 8) . Truly informed consent means that the patient really does understand the potential risks and benefits, as well as the possible
limitations and any available alternative approaches. That is our contract with the patient. Signing an 'informed consent form' is a medico-legal requirement in many institutions, but this is nothing more than confirmation of the education process.
It is important to 'tell it as it is'. It is in our nature as physicians to want to reassure nervous patients that 'things will go just fine', but that is neither honest nor wise.
Nothing can replace a detailed discussion between the endoscopist and the patient (and any accompanying persons), but this
process can be enhanced with written, video- or web-based educational materials. Suitable brochures are available from national
organizations, and on many websites, and can be adapted for local conditions. The document in routine use at MUSC is attached
(Fig. 9). The process of informed consent must be clearly documented, and witnessed. For elective procedures, this process should
take place preferably at least 1 day beforehand to give time for review of the materials and unhurried reflection. Whatever
the details of the education process, patients must be given the opportunity to ask questions of their endoscopist (and support
staff) again before the procedure.
It is appropriate also to emphasize the importance of simple courtesies and common humanity in dealing with our customers.
What is familiar and routine to the endoscopist and staff may be viewed by patients as a major ordealespecially by those unfortunate enough to experience a significant adverse event.
Care after ERCP
Many patients are kept in hospital under observation overnight after ERCP. The advantage is that nursing staff can ensure
adequate fluid intake (mainly intravenously), and can quickly detect and pay appropriate attention to symptoms which may herald
important complications. However, overnight observation adds costs, and can add other burdens for patients and their families.
Several studies have evaluated factors predicting the need for admission . Admission is unnecessary in the majority of standard level 1 procedures (simple biliary stones and stents), but seems wise
when the risk is predicted to be higher than average (e.g. sphincter dysfunction management), when the procedure has been
difficult in some way, or when the patient is frail, or has no responsible accompanying person. Staying overnight in a local
hotel is an appropriate compromise option for patients who live more than an hour or two away. Attempts have been made to
use serum tests early in the recovery period to predict subsequent pancreatitis [111,112], but this has not become standard practice.
Patients are often keen to catch up on the meals that they have missed as a result of the procedure, but it has been my practice
to recommend taking fluids only until the next morning, when the main risk of pancreatitis has passed. However, a recent randomized
trial suggests that early refeeding is not detrimental .
Pancreatitis after ERCP
Pancreatitis is now by far the most common complication of ERCP and sphincterotomy (Figs 4, 5). Our better understanding of the risk factors in recent years is largely attributable to the seminal studies anchored by
Freeman, who has published several comprehensive reviews [114,115]. This contribution will focus on the key facts.
Serum amylase and lipase levels can be shown to rise in almost every patient if measured within a few hours of ERCP, even
sometimes when the pancreatic duct has not been entered or opacified. While this indicates some irritation of the pancreas,
it does not constitute clinically relevant pancreatitis. The incidence of pancreatitis clearly depends greatly on the criteria
used for the diagnosis .
The consensus workshop suggested this working definition of post-ERCP pancreatitis . 'Pancreatitis after ERCP is a clinical illness with typical pain, associated with at least a three-fold increase in serum amylase
(or lipase) at 24 h, with symptoms impressive enough to require admission to hospital for treatment (or extension of an existing or planned
admission).' Severity was graded as mild if hospitalization is needed for less than 3 nights, moderate if 49 nights, and severe if more than 10 nights, or if patients require intensive care or surgical treatment.
This definition has been widely used, despite some concern about the relevance of hospitalization, and the fact that the apparent
incidence will vary according to the admission policy. It is also sometimes difficult to decide how to deal (statistically
as well as clinically) with patients with long-standing pancreatic pain who linger in hospital after their procedures. We
do not count this as a complication unless the patient is obviously worse afterwards.
Incidence of pancreatitis after ERCP
In addition to the major reviews and studies of ERCP complications , there is extensive literature specific to the risk of pancreatitis after ERCP . The reported incidence ranges widely, from less than 1% up to as high as 40%. Much of this huge variation can be attributed
to different definitions, incomplete data collection, and differing case mixes. Ranges of 29% are representative of more recent prospective series, mostly using consensus definitions  (Figs 4, 5). An innovative population-based study of 97 810 ERCPs in Canada reported a pancreatitis rate of 2.2%, with greater risk in younger patients and in women .
The overall pancreatitis rate in our series at MUSC is < 3%, with a gradual reduction over the years, despite an increasing
number of cases with suspected sphincter dysfunction, where the risk is known to be greater (Figs 6, 7).
More than 75% of all cases of pancreatitis after ERCP were graded as mild (Fig. 6). Mild complications are disappointing and inconvenient, but are not serious or threatening (medically or legally). Severe
pancreatitis occurred in 13 cases (0.13%). They are devastating for all involved, and fatalities occur (one in our series).
For these reasons, there is great interest in understanding the true risk factors, and ways to minimize them.
Risk factors for pancreatitis
Any ERCP procedure can cause pancreatitis, but certain factors are well known to increase the risk. A listing, adapted from
Freeman  is shown in Fig. 10. The factors are both patient- and procedure-related.
Patient factors increasing the risk [114,115,122,123]
It has become abundantly clear that the risk of developing pancreatitis is greater in younger patients, and in women as compared
to men [114,124], and particularly when ERCP is done for 'suspected sphincter dysfunction' in the absence of much objective evidence for biliary or pancreatic pathology. A prior history of recurrent pancreatitis,
or of post-ERCP pancreatitis, also increases the risk in most studies. Contrary to earlier reports [62,63], a 'small' or normal-sized bile duct is not an independent risk factor [114,115].
Procedure factors increasing the risk
Pancreatitis is more likely to occur with aggressive manipulation of the pancreatic orifice , and with repeated injections of contrast , sometimes evidenced by acinarization or the appearance of a urogram . The importance of increased pressure in the duct is supported by the old observation that postprocedure pancreatitis is
less likely in patients who have a patent duct of Santorini. Variations on methods for cannulation have been explored , without any new consensus.
For a long time, it was believed that sphincter manometry was a potent cause of pancreatitis . However, it is now clear that manometry is simply a surrogate for sphincter of Oddi dysfunction (SOD), which is the real
culprit [115,133]. Several series show that the apparent increase disappears if increased sphincter pressure is treated (by pancreatic sphincterotomy
or temporary stenting). It has been shown also that the risk is actually higher when suspected SOD (e.g. postcholecystectomy
pain) is treated empirically by sphincterotomy than when manometry is employed .
Several studies now indicate that standard biliary sphincterotomy does not markedly increase the overall risk of pancreatitis
(when compared with diagnostic ERCP) (Figs 4, 5, 8). The suggestion that pure cutting current could reduce the risk of pancreatitis has not been proven in most of the published
In the hands of experts (who publish), access precut sphincterotomy appears to be both useful and safe, at least when used
for good (biliary) indications [7587,140]. However, many series document a significantly increased risk of pancreatitis when precutting is performed [44,114,115,118,123]. In Freeman's large prospective multicenter analysis, the complication rate was 24.3% after precutting, with 3.6% severe
Pancreatic sphincterotomy is being performed increasingly in referral centres for many different indications. The pancreatitis
rate for 1615 pancreatic sphincterotomies in our unit (performed mainly for sphincter dysfunction, and with temporary stenting),
Biliary sphincter dilation
Balloon dilation of the biliary sphincter has been advocated as an alternative to sphincterotomy for removal of duct stones,
in the hope of reducing the (small) short- and long-term risks [94,95]. Early case series gave encouraging results [94,141,142], but the technique can cause pancreatitis . Many randomized studies have been performed to compare the risk with that of standard sphincterotomy . Some involved older patients, often with dilated ducts and large stones, and showed that the short-term risks of sphincterotomy
and of balloon dilation were similar [142,144]. However, the concept of sphincter preservation is most attractive in younger patients with smaller stones and relatively
normal ducts. A major multicenter US study in these types of patients (in the context of laparoscopic cholecystectomy) showed
a marked increase in the risk of pancreatitis, with two deaths . This has led to a consensus, at least in the USA, that the balloon technique should be considered now only in special circumstances,
such as coagulopathy , and maybe Billroth II patients [152,153]. This restrictive recommendation could change with further progress in preventing pancreatitis, e.g. by combining balloon
dilation with pharmacological or stenting prophylaxis.
Temporary stenting of the biliary sphincter has been used as a therapeutic trial in patients with suspected sphincter dysfunction.
This technique is a potent cause of pancreatitis  and should be avoided.
Some endoscopists routinely perform sphincterotomy before placing biliary stents through strictures, to facilitate subsequent
stent exchange and to reduce the risk of pancreatitis caused by irritating the pancreatic orifice. The latter hope has been
documented only in a few patients with hilar tumors , where sphincterotomy is necessary anyway to place more than one stent. Sphincterotomy is not necessary or protective in
other circumstances .
The precise risk of causing immediate pancreatitis by placing pancreatic stents is difficult to measure, since this is done
in many ways for many different indications, and often in conjunction with other manipulations such as pancreatic sphincterotomy.
Combining patient- and procedure-related factors
Many of these risk factors are additive . For instance, precutting in suspected sphincter dysfunction resulted in a complication rate of 35.3%, with no fewer than
23.5% overall graded as severe . In another study from the same group concerning post-ERCP pancreatitis, a woman with a normal serum bilirubin, bile duct
stone, and easy cannulation had a 5% risk of pancreatitis. This increased to 16% if cannulation proved difficult, and to 42%
if no stone was found (i.e. suspected sphincter of Oddi dysfunction) . These are the unfortunate patients who are still developing severe pancreatitis after ERCP, and who feature in lawsuits.
Prevention of pancreatitis after ERCP
Avoiding ERCP, especially in high-risk patients
Post-ERCP pancreatitis cannot (currently) be prevented completely, except by avoiding the procedure, which is a good strategy
in many cases; sadly, it is not applicable in retrospect. The availability of sophisticated imaging techniques such as MRCP
and EUS means that ERCP should be used nowadays almost exclusively for therapy. There is a less than 10% chance of finding
objective pathology by ERCP in a patient with pain, normal or only slightly deranged chemistry, and normal CT/MRCP imaging. Where sphincter dysfunction is suspected, wisdom dictates referral to a center able to perform manometry, and
experienced in methods (e.g. pancreatic stenting) known to reduce the risk of pancreatitis.
The consensus panel at the 2002 NIH State of the Science conference on ERCP advised strongly against the 'casual use' of ERCP in investigation of patients with obscure abdominal pain, stating 'Diagnostic ERCP has no role in the assessment of these patients. It is precisely the typical SOD patient profile (young, healthy
female) that is at the highest risk for ERCP-induced severe pancreatitis and even death. Indeed the risk of complication exceeds
potential benefit in many cases. Therefore, ERCP, if performed, must be coupled with diagnostic SOM (sphincter of Oddi manometry),
possible dual sphincterotomy, and possible pancreatic stent placement. ERCP with SOM and sphincterotomy should ideally be
performed at specific referral centers, and in randomized controlled trials that examine the impact and timing of therapeutic
maneuvers on clinical outcome'.
When ERCP is indicated, there are several ways to reduce the risk of the procedure [114,118,126,155].
Attention to the mechanical factors discussed above can reduce the risk. Gentle intelligent probing for the desired duct with
minimal injections of contrast will help. The endoscopist who personally injects the contrast has better control of this important
variable. Probing with a guidewire rather than contrast may be prudent, but reduced risk has not been proven. It is important
to know when to stop. Failure to complete an ERCP may feel bad, but severe pancreatitis feels much worse, to both endoscopist
and patient. Persisting, and using more dangerous approaches like precutting, can be justified only when there is a strong
indication for the procedure, i.e. good evidence for biliary (or pancreatic) pathology, and a likelihood of needing endoscopic
When manometry is performed, it is clearly wise to use an aspirating catheter system . In the future, microtransducer technology may be preferable, and safer .
The type of current used for sphincterotomy does not appear to be a big factor influencing the pancreatitis rate , but it is clearly wise to avoid excessive coagulation near the pancreatic orifice.
Extensive studies have not shown any consistent benefit for one or other contrast agent for ERCP .
The list of pharmacological agents that have been proposed and tested for prophylaxis of post-ERCP pancreatitis is long and
varied [114,126,155,164,165]. It includes antibiotics , heparin , corticosteroids , nifedipine [174,175], octreotide and somatostatin derivatives , trinitrin , lidocaine spray , gabexate [198,199], secretin, cytokine inhibitors , and a non-steroidal (rectal diclofenac) . Apart from a 12 h infusion of gabexate , the study using diclofenac is so far the only one to show some promise. It deserves further evaluation, not least because
of its simplicity, and the fact that it can be given selectively after ERCP. Preliminary data on secretin prophylaxis is encouraging
None of the agents tested so far has proven to be sufficiently effective and practicable to find a place in routine practice,
at least in Western countries. Reports suggest that octreotide analogs are widely used for this purpose in Japan.
Pancreatic stenting to prevent pancreatitis
There is now overwhelming evidence that temporary stenting of the pancreatic duct can reduce the risk of pancreatitis after
ERCP in high-risk patients, e.g. those with suspected or proven sphincter dysfunction, at least in expert centers . This recognition is one of the most important developments in ERCP in the last 15 years. The first assessment was not convincing
, but a randomized trial from our group in 1998 showed a dramatic benefit . Eighty patients undergoing biliary sphincterotomy after manometry for suspected SOD were randomized to placement (with extraction
next day) of a short 5FG pancreatic stent, or no stent. The pancreatitis rate fell from 26% to 7%.
The need for a second procedure to remove the stent is now obviated by the currently preferred technique of placing small
stents that pass spontaneously within 12 weeks. We use stents of 3 Fr, with no internal flaps, and 812 cm long (so that the internal tip is in a straight part of the duct). Unlike larger and stiffer stents, these stents do not
appear to cause any duct damage. Since mid-2000 this has been routine in all of our patients being investigated and treated
for suspected sphincter dysfunction. The pancreatitis rate in these patients was 5.8% in 200203. We also use 3 Fr stents in other contexts when there has been extensive pancreatic manipulation.
Studies from many centers have amply confirmed the value of this technique [114,208213]. One important caveat is that additional skills are required to pass small guidewires deeply into the pancreatic duct, so
that the safety and value of the method is unproven in less experienced hands.
Feeding and monitoring
The need for postprocedure observation and possible food restriction to reduce the risks of ERCP have been discussed earlier.
Post-ERCP pancreatitis, recognition, and management
Many patients experience some epigastric distress and bloating in the hour or two after ERCP. Often this is due to excessive
air insufflation, which settles quickly. By contrast, pancreatitis usually becomes evident after a delay of 412 h, and is characterized by typical pancreatic-type pain, often associated with nausea and vomiting. Patients have tachycardia,
epigastric tenderness, and absent or diminished bowel sounds. Serum levels of amylase and lipase are elevated, but leucocytosis
is more predictive of severity than the enzyme levels.
Perforation is the most important alternative diagnosis, which should always be considered early if there is marked distress
and abdominal tenderness (and especially if the serum levels of amylase/lipase are not impressive). Abdominal radiographs may be diagnostic in some cases, but CT is more sensitive.
The spectrum of severity and treatment of patients with pancreatitis after ERCP is the same as for pancreatitis occurring
spontaneously . Adequate analgesia and aggressive fluid replacement are key. Some experts use octreotide analogs, but proof of benefit is
anecdotal. CT scanning is indicated within 24 h if there is suspicion of perforation, and after a few days if clinical progress
is slow or if fever develops (Fig. 11). Antibiotics are usually not given unless pancreatic infection is proven by percutaneous aspiration. The rare patient who
develops a pseudocyst or pancreatic necrosis may require percutaneous or endoscopic drainage, or surgical debridement, and
may require transfer to a tertiary center.
Post-ERCP pancreatitis, conclusion
Pancreatitis is now the commonest complication of ERCP, and it can be devastating. It cannot yet be prevented completely,
even in expert hands. It is most likely to occur when inexperienced endoscopists work on patients with minimal pathology.
When the indication is not strong, wise clinicians will exhaust less invasive approaches before recommending or performing
ERCP, will make sure that patients fully appreciate their individualized risk/benefit balance, and will include referral to expert centers in their consent process. Skillful technique, and the use of
small pancreatic stents, will keep the risk of pancreatitis below 5% in most circumstances, but cannot yet eliminate it.
Four different types of perforation have been described resulting from ERCP procedures . They are:
- Perforation of ducts or tumors by guidewires and other instrumentsperhaps better called 'penetrations'.
- Retroduodenal perforation related to sphincterotomy.
- Endoscopic perforation of the esophagus, stomach, or duodenum (away from the papilla).
- Stent-related perforation.
These types have different causes and consequences.
Duct and tumor 'penetrations'
Guidewires, and occasionally accessories passed over guidewires (such as sphincterotomes, catheters, and dilators) can pass
through the wall of the biliary or pancreatic ductal system (or indeed the raw area of a fresh sphincterotomy) [215,216]. This occurs perhaps most often when attempting to cannulate in a patient with a tumor involving the region of the papilla.
These incidents are rarely reported, so their frequency is unknown. They are more likely to occur with vigorous probing in
difficult cases, especially when there is distortion by tumor, or sharp ductal deviation for other reasons. Rigid guidewires
may be more dangerous. Often it is safer to proceed with a 'flipped' tip wire, which tends to find the lumen more easily.
Ducts have also been disrupted occasionally by over-aggressive balloon dilatation of biliary (and pancreatic) strictures.
The radiographic appearances may appear somewhat alarming when contrast is injected.
The risk of this event can be reduced by careful insertion of instruments whilst being aware of the potential problem. Recognition
is usually straightforward, and the problem is defused satisfactorily by finding the correct lumen, and by completing the
procedure (e.g. by stenting). It is very unusual indeed for a patient to have any adverse consequences.
Perforation occurring after sphincterotomy is always retroduodenal. It is defined by the presence of air (and/or contrast) in the retroperitoneum.
A review of more than 12 000 biliary sphincterotomies performed before 1990 showed a sphincterotomy perforation rate of 1.3%; 27% of these patients
were operated, and the overall mortality was 0.2%. Since that time most publications show a sphincterotomy perforation rate
of < 1% [24,25,44,49,62,215,217]. Three studies have reported higher perforation rates: 1.1% , 1.8% , and 2.2% .
Only 4 perforations have been recorded after 2820 biliary sphincterotomies at MUSC over the last 10 years, a rate of 0.14%:
3 were operated, and none died.
Routine CT scans in asymptomatic patients after uncomplicated sphincterotomy have shown small quantities of periduodenal or
retroperitoneal air in up to 10% of patients [219,220], so it may be that there are more asymptomatic 'micro-perforations' than is commonly recognized.
Risk factors for sphincterotomy perforation
It is assumed that perforation is more likely with larger and repeat biliary sphincterotomies, and that cutting beyond 'one to two o'clock' is more risky. It is not reported more frequently in patients with peripapillary diverticula [59,60]. As discussed above, precut sphincterotomy appears to be relatively safe and useful in expert hands, with restricted indications,
but it is clearly more dangerous in routine practice, and when used, for instance, in patients with suspected sphincter dysfunction
[44,76]. Perforation rates after precutting as high as 5% have been reported [22,75,77], and precut related perforations feature prominently in medico-legal cases involving ERCP.
Perforation also appears to be more likely in patients with suspected SOD . This may be due simply to the smaller- (often normal-) sized ducts, or because patients with bile duct stones are somehow
protected (due to the distorting/fibrotic effect of recurrent stone impaction or passage). It has been reported occasionally after forceful extraction of large
stones, and at least once after balloon dilatation of the sphincter to remove stones without sphincterotomy .
Perforation after pancreatic sphincterotomy (at the main or minor papilla) is extremely rare . One occurred during 1615 pancreatic sphincterotomies at MUSC over the last 10 years.
Recognition of sphincterotomy perforation
Perforation may become obvious during the procedure itself, when unusual territory is encountered (Figs 12, 13), or when the radiographs show contrast in non-anatomical shapes around the duodenum. This is best recognized by inflating
and then aspirating air to show that the odd radiographic shape does not change (which it does if the contrast is in the duodenum).
Occasionally, if sufficient air has been insufflated after the perforation, fluoroscopy may show air around the right kidney
and along the lower edge of the liver (Fig. 14).
Most cases of perforation are not recognized until after the procedure, when the patient complains of epigastric pain. The
differential diagnosis is pancreatitis, which is far more common. Perforation should always be considered when the pain starts
soon after the procedure (pancreatitis may not develop for 412 h), when symptoms are more severe than anticipated, and when accompanied by guarding and tachycardia. Rarely, patients may
develop subcutaneous emphysema, pneumo-medistinum or pneumo-thoraces after a few hours [221,222]. The white blood count usually rises quickly. Finding a normal or only slightly elevated serum level of amylase or lipase
in patients with impressive abdominal pain should raise suspicion of perforation.
A plain abdominal X-ray may show retroduodenal air, but CT scanning is more definitive (Fig. 15), and should be done within 24 h in any patient with severe abdominal symptoms after sphincterotomy.
Reducing risks of sphincterotomy perforation
Clearly, the best way to reduce the risk of causing perforation at sphincterotomy is to minimize the use of higher risk techniques,
such as cutting too far, cutting 'off-line', extending prior sphincterotomies, and precutting.
Management of sphincterotomy perforation
Perforation is a life-threatening event; prompt recognition and efficient management are very important [215,217,223227]. Patients should have nothing by mouth and adequate intravenous fluids (and nutrition as necessary), and are usually given
antibiotics. Most experts recommend placement of a gastric or duodenal drainage tube. A few endoscopists have suggested placing
a biliary stent or nasobiliary drain to reduce contamination of the retroperitoneum, but this is not proven or standard practice,
and the additional manipulation may make matters worse.
Most surgeons equate perforation with immediate operation. However, surgeons exploring cases often are unable to find the
site of perforation, and end up simply leaving retroperitoneal drains. Reported experience, including surgical studies [217,226], show that surgery is not usually necessary, and that most (reported) retroduodenal perforations have been managed conservatively. An important caveat is that conservative therapy seems to be effective only when perforation is recognized early .
Despite the dominance of non-operative treatment for perforation, it is wise to obtain a surgical opinion at the earliest
possible stage. Patients should be managed jointly on a daily basis. I recommend immediate/early surgery only if there is remaining biliary pathology which itself requires operation. Thus, a patient with gallbladder
stones can reasonably undergo immediate cholecystectomy and placement of drains. However, most perforations occur in patients
with little or no remaining pathology (e.g. cleared retained stones, or SOD), where there is no indication for surgeryother than the known perforation. Conservative management is usually effective if started early, but intervention (percutaneous
or surgical) may be required in the ensuing days or weeks if fluid collections/abscesses develop in the right renal or pericolic areas. Operating at a later stage is often difficult because of infection;
it may be necessary to perform diversionary procedures as well as multiple drains . A few patients have had a very bad experience, with months in hospital and multiple operations.
One successful case of endoscopic treatment with multiple clips has been reported .
Perforation remote from the papilla
Endoscopic perforation can occur anywhere that endoscopes travel.
The lateral viewing nature of the duodenoscope may perhaps increase the risk of pharyngeal perforation in elderly patients
with diverticula. In the absence of pathology, it is difficult to conceive how endoscopic perforation could occur in the esophagus
or stomach, but such events have been reported [215,229,230]. It has also happened rarely in the duodenum, when attempting to negotiate a stricture or marked distortion by tumor. The
first therapeutic video-duodenoscopes had a long distal tip, which caused perforations during forceful stone extraction maneuvers
Perforation of the afferent loop is a definite risk during endoscopy of patients after Billroth II gastrectomy (and more complex
bypass procedures) . Rates as high as 6%  and even 20%  have been reported in this context.
Perforation usually occurs as a result of stretching of loops rather than penetration of the endoscopic tip. It can be avoided
largely by careful endoscopic technique, especially in patients who have undergone diversionary procedures or who have known
One expert suggests that all Billroth II patients (and more complex diversions) should be referred to tertiary centres, because
of the added difficulty and significant risk .
The incidence of endoscopic (as opposed to sphincterotomy) perforations is really unknown, but should be extremely low. It
is less than 1:1000 in our series, all of them in the afferent loop context (Fig. 6).
Recognition and management of endoscopic perforation
Diagnosis of endoscopic perforation is usually obvious, either during the procedure, or because of obvious patient distress
and clinical signs in the chest or abdomen. Radiographs show intraperitoneal (or mediastinal) air.
Endoscopic perforation usually requires surgical intervention, and prompt surgical consultation is mandatory. Rare episodes
have been treated conservatively.
Stent migration perforation
There have been rare reports of penetration and even perforation of the duodenum, small bowel, and colon by stents which have
migrated from the bile duct [235,236]. Almost all of these have been 'straight' 10 Fr gauge stents. Those that have migrated down from the bile duct and penetrated the opposite duodenal wall can sometimes
be managed simply by endoscopic extraction. Others have required surgical intervention.
Infection after ERCP
Generic infection risks of all endoscopic procedures (e.g. endocarditis, viral transmission), are discussed elsewhere (Endoscopy Practice and Safety Chapter 7). Preprocedure antibiotics are recommended for prophylaxis against endocarditis, by standard guidelines.
ERCP differs from most other endoscopies in that it risks contaminating territory that is usually sterile. Also, when bile
is infected (e.g. in patients with stones, or blocked stents), biliary manipulation may disseminate the infection locally
By consensus, infection is defined as 'an otherwise unexplained fever of greater than 38°C lasting 2448 h after ERCP'. It is described as moderately severe if it requires more than 3 days treatment in hospital, or further endoscopic or percutaneous
intervention, and as severe if the patient develops septic shock or requires surgery .
The reported incidence of clinical infections after ERCP is low, ranging from 0.7 to 1.6% in various modern series [22,27,29,40,44,238243]. However, bacteremia rates of up to 27% have been reported [237,244].
In the early days of ERCP, before the importance of disinfection was recognized, there were several unfortunate outbreaks
of nosocomial infections (usually due to Pseudomonas) [16,18,237,245]. Sadly, Pseudomonas infections are still being described after ERCP . Almost all are due to faulty cleaning and disinfection, and should be preventable.
Bacteremia and septicemia occur when the bile is infected and drainage is compromised. This can occur after ERCP in patients
with stones or strictures if adequate drainage is not achieved, and when bilary stents become occluded [238244,250]. The risk of introducing or stirring up infection when the bile is infected can be minimized by adhering to disinfection
protocols, by reducing the biliary pressure (by aspirating bile before injecting much contrast), and by ensuring adequate
drainage by removing all obstructing stones or placing appropriate stents. Sepsis is a particular risk after ERCP management
of hilar tumors, and sclerosing cholangitis, where it may prove impossible to provide complete drainage of all obstructed
segments. This is a good reason for obtaining detailed anatomical imaging (by CT and/or MRCP) beforehand to assist therapeutic planning.
Cholecystitis, sometimes with odd characteristics [251,252], has occurred soon after ERCP; presumably this is more likely when there is cystic duct compromise by stone or tumor (or
occasionally after stenting). It is managed by standard percutaneous or surgical techniques.
This has occurred as part of severe pancreatitis after ERCP , and in patients with pseudocysts , due to inadequate disinfection or incomplete drainage.
The role of prophylactic antibiotics in the prevention of infection after ERCP is still unclear, despite a very substantial
literature and much opinion . Although one randomized study did appear to show benefit for antibiotic prophylaxis , this and others  demonstrate most clearly that biliary obstruction is the main hazard, and that effective drainage is the best treatment.
The risk of serious infection is now so low that further randomized trials are unlikely to be helpful.
In earlier years, we gave intravenous antibiotics (usually ampicillin and gentamycin) to all patients with clinical or radiological
evidence of duct obstruction, and whenever therapy seemed probable (which meant about 90% of all cases). The infection rate
was < 1%. We gradually reduced the indications for prophylaxis, and changed to oral ciprofloxacin, without any increase in infection
. Our current practice is to give oral ciprofloxacin (two doses) before ERCP when failure of complete drainage is predictable
(e.g. complex hilar tumors, sclerosing cholangitis, and pseudocysts), and to give it intravenously immediately after any procedure
in which we fail to provide drainage. With this policy, the incidence of clinical infection in our unit remains well below
1% (Fig. 7). Some have advocated mixing antibiotics with the contrast media, but this practice has never been validated.
The commonest cause of delayed biliary sepsis is a blocked stent. Patients can become seriously ill quickly with septic cholangitis.
For this reason, patients and their caregivers must be fully informed about this risk and instructed to make contact as soon
as symptoms develop. For the same reason, it is common practice to change plastic stents routinely (at 34 months), especially in patients with benign biliary strictures. The need to do so in patients with malignant disease (as
opposed to waiting for obstructive symptoms) has not been validated in controlled studies, but is still common practice.
Bleeding after ERCP
Clinically significant bleeding has occurred rarely after diagnostic ERCP (due to retching, or after biopsy in patients with
tumors or coagulopathy, or after cannulation in patients with biliary varices). However, the main cause of bleeding is sphincterotomy
(or other cutting procedure such as papillectomy, and pseudocyst drainage). It is common to see a small amount of 'endoscopic' bleeding (Fig. 16) (i.e. oozing immediately after sphincterotomy), but clinically relevant bleeding is much rarer.
Bleeding can occur immediately, but is often delayed for up to 2 weeks.
Whilst significant bleeding is usually manifest by hematemesis and/or melena, occasional patients can present with biliary pain and cholangitis if bleeding fills the bile duct.
Definition of bleeding, and incidence
The consensus conference on complications defined bleeding in clinical terms. Even impressive immediate bleeding is not counted
as a complication if it can be stopped by endoscopic manipulation during the procedure. The severity of the bleeding is stratified
- mild: clinical (not just endoscopic) evidence of bleeding, with a hemoglobin drop less than 3 g and no transfusion;
- moderate: transfusion (4 units or less), but no angiographic interventional surgery;
- severe: transfusion of 5 units of more, or intervention (angiographic or surgical);
- fatal: death attributable to bleeding.
Memory and some early publications [15,17,19,20,265] indicate that bleeding was the commonest complication of sphincterotomy in the first 1015 years after its introduction, with an average rate of 2.5% in over 20 000 reported sphincterotomies , with a high of 11% . More recent series, using the consensus definitions, report a lower incidence of 0.82% [24,25,44]. One series suggested that the true incidence is higher if hematological parameters are followed routinely . More than half the reported episodes of bleeding are delayed for up to 2 weeks.
At MUSC, the rate of bleeding after biliary sphincterotomy was 0.7%; all were delayed.
Risk factors for bleeding, and avoidance
Bleeding is certainly more likely to occur in patients with coagulopathy and/or portal hypertension [267,268], renal failure , and apparently also when a sphincterotomy is repeated . There is no evidence that the risk is greater in patients taking aspirin and other agents affecting platelet function , although it is still common practice to ask patients to discontinue their use. Delayed clinical bleeding may  or may not  be more common when there has been some immediate oozing.
Sphincterotomy should always be performed in a controlled manner, with blended current, avoiding the 'zipper' cut. Coagulopathies should be corrected wherever possible. Anticoagulants should be discontinued, but the need for temporary
heparin coverage, and the duration, are controversial. The effect of newer antiplatelet agents has yet to be clearly established,
but most endoscopists prefer these to be stopped for 10 days if possible. The type of current used may be relevant. One study
showed that the ERBE generator reduced bleeding visible at the time of endoscopy, but not the risk of clinically defined bleeding
. Another study utilizing initial cutting current (to reduce the risk of pancreatitis) did show a slightly increased risk
of bleeding .
Balloon dilatation of the sphincter can be used instead of sphincterotomy for extracting some stones in patients with irreversible
coagulopathy, or severe portal hypertension [151,274,275].
Management of sphincterotomy bleeding
Bleeding immediately after sphincterotomy usually stops spontaneously, and (unless there is a pumping vessel), it is usually
not necessary to take any dramatic action. There are varying opinions about management when treatment is needed [271,276286]. Some have advocated monopolar cautery , local injection of contrast agent , even hemoclips . However, it appears that epinephrine injection is the most popular and effective technique [271,286].
My practice (with unimpressive bleeding) is first to spray the site with about 10 ml of a dilute (1: 100 000) solution of epinephrine. This often stops oozing temporarily, at least enough to see exactly where the bleeding is coming
from. If bleeding is impressive, or if oozing persists, balloon tamponade is the next step. A retrieval balloon is overinflated
in the bile duct, and then pulled down forcefully to compress the bleeding site between the balloon and the endoscope tip,
for 5 min. If that fails, we inject epinephrine (diluted 1:10 000) using a standard sclerotherapy needle. Up to 5 ml can be injected in aliquots of 1 ml, taking care not to compromise the pancreatic orifice. For this reason it is my practice to inject just outside the top
edges of the sphincterotomy, rather than within it. If there has been much manipulation, it may be wise to place a small protective
pancreatic stent (if possible).
Very rarely, bleeding is profuse, and endoscopic vision is quickly lost. Expert angiographic management can be effective . Surgical oversewing would seem logical when all else fails, but re-bleeding may occur .
This can occur up to 2 weeks after sphincterotomy, and should be treated like any other episode of bleeding. It is important
to confirm the source of bleeding, since patients occasionally bleed from other lesions.
Complications of stents
Biliary and pancreatic stents can cause problems through local trauma, blockage, and migration. Much depends on their size,
nature, and position. Sphincterotomy (when placing biliary stents) appears not to affect the rate of blockage [102,288], but may reduce the risk of pancreatitis, at least with hilar tumors .
Blockage of (plastic) biliary stents
This is inevitable after a few months, and can cause serious cholangitis. A host of ingenious attempts to prevent this phenomenon
over two decades has so far been unavailing (Chapter 4) . It is common practice to reduce the risk by recommending the routine exchange of biliary stents at about 3 months. This
is mandatory in patients with benign strictures. It is perhaps legitimate to await events in patients with malignant disease
if they (and their caregivers) are well informed about the first symptoms (usually shaking chills), and the need for urgent
action. Expandable metal stents usually last much longer, but the consequences of blockage are equally serious.
Stents which migrate outwards may cause damage to the duodenum  or distal intestine . Stents which migrate inwards can be difficult to retrieve, especially in the pancreatic duct . Most migrated stents can be teased out of the papilla with a retrieval balloon, or grasped with foreign body forceps, snare,
or basket. Rarely, surgery is needed to rectify these situations.
Duct damage due to stents
The presence of a stent in the bile duct for many months may cause some wall irregularity and thickening. This can be seen
radiologically (and can cause diagnostic difficulty at EUS), but has no clinical relevance. However, stent-induced duct damage
is a serious problem in the pancreas , especially when the duct initially is normal. Irritation by the tip of the stent (especially at a duct bend), or by internal
flaps, often causes wall irregularity, and clinically significant narrowing. Some early descriptions suggested that most of
these lesions resolved after stent removal, but we have seen many tight fibrotic strictures, which are very difficult to manage.
Relatively stiff pancreatic stents of 7 and even 10 Fr can be used legitimately in some patients with established chronic
pancreatitis, for the management of stones or strictures. However, when stenting seems indicated in relatively normal ducts,
it seems wise to use smaller (3 or 5 Fr) and softer stents, and for only a few weeks . The length of a pancreatic stent should be chosen so that the inner tip is in a straight part of the duct.
This has been reported after biliary stenting for malignancy .
Baskets may become impacted during attempts to remove large stones from the bile duct . Usually this situation can be rectified quickly by disengaging the stone, or by crushing it with a 'rescue' lithotripsy sleeve (Chapter 2). To prevent this problem, it is wise to use a mechanical lithotripsy system initially when approaching stones > 1 cm in diameter. Baskets should be used sparingly and with great caution in the pancreatic duct. They are effective for removal
of soft stones (protein plugs), and mucus, but calcified pancreatic stones are very resistant to mechanical lithotripsy. There
is a risk that the basket will break inside the duct and remain impacted.
Cardiopulmonary complications and sedation issues
Adverse cardiopulmonary events can occur during any endoscopic procedure [300,301], and myocardial ischemia has been studied specifically during ERCP [302,303].
Transient hypoxia and cardiac dysrhythmias occur occasionally during ERCP procedures, but are usually recognized and managed
appropriately without clinical consequence. Very rarely they may result in severe decompensation during or after procedures,
and are a significant cause of the rare fatalities attributable to ERCP.
Risk factors for cardiopulmonary complications include known or unsuspected premorbid conditions, and problems related to
sedation and analgesia. Oversedation can be a serious problem, especially in the elderly and frail, and particularly if monitoring
is inadequate (in a darkened room).
Cardiopulmonary complications can be largely avoided by careful preprocedure evaluation, appropriate collaboration with anesthesiologists
(and cardiologists) when dealing with high-risk patients, formal training of endoscopists and nurses in sedation and resuscitation,
and careful monitoring (Chapter 3) .
Aspiration pneumonia has been described after all types of endoscopic procedures; the incidence is unknown, but it is probably
more common than recognized, since the onset may be delayed.
Many other untoward events have followed ERCP. These include:
- Gallstone ileus after removing large stones [305,306].
- Musculoskeletal injuries (e.g. dislocation of the temporomandibular joint  or shoulder, dental trauma).
- Opacification of blood vessels. The portal venous system and lymphatics have been seen [308,309] whilst injecting contrast through tapered tip catheters. The contrast moves rapidly on fluoroscopy. If air is injected as
well the appearances on CT scan are alarming , but no sequelae have been reported.
- Antral sinus infection after prolonged nasobiliary drainage.
- Renal dysfunction with the use of nephrotoxic medications (such as gentamycin).
- Impaction or fracturing of nasobiliary and nasopancreatic drains.
- Allergic reactions to iodine-containing contrast agents. Allergic reactions have happened, even with the very small doses which enter the blood stream during ERCP. Endoscopy units
should have policies in place to deal with patients who claim to be allergic .
- Increased cholestasis in patients with sclerosing cholangitis .
- Splenic injury has been reported several times during ERCP .
- Distant abscesses have occurred in the spleen and kidney [314,317], and no doubt elsewhere.
- Hemolysis due to G 6 PD deficiency and hemolyticuremic syndrome has been reported [318,319].
- Dissemination of pancreatic cancer was reported after sphincterotomy .
- A false aneurysm of a branch of the pancreatico-duodenal artery developed after needle-knife sphincterotomy .
Deaths after ERCP
The literature reporting deaths after ERCP is difficult to analyze as the series contain different spectra of patients and
procedures, and some do not distinguish between 30 day mortality and events attributable to the procedure itself. One paper
illustrates the difficulty in attributing mortality between concurrent illness, active complications, and complications due
to other procedures required after ERCP failure . Data collected for the consensus conference in 1991 reported 103 deaths after 7729 sphincterotomies (1.3%). Most subsequent
series report mortality figures of less than 0.5% [24,27,37,44,65,322], with two higher figures of 0.8%  and 1% .
The causes of death in all of the reported series cover the spectrum of commonest complications, with approximately equal
numbers resulting from pancreatitis, bleeding, perforation, infection, and cardiopulmonary events. Delay in diagnosis of perforation
is mentioned as a contributing cause in several publications [217,224,324]. Of nine fatalities resulting in claims to insurance in Denmark, seven were attributable to pancreatitis (two of which had
undergone precutting) .
There are a number of adverse events attributable to ERCP that may not be apparent for months or even years afterwards.
Failure to make the correct diagnosis is an under-reported and greatly under-appreciated complication of ERCP. It can be due
to poor technique (both endoscopic and radiological), as well as incorrect interpretation of adequate images, or both. Bile
duct stones are missed with inadequate duct filling, especially in less obvious sites such as the cystic duct stump, and the
dependent right intrahepatic duct, or when over-dense contrast is used in a dilated system. Conversely, air bubbles introduced
into the system may be misinterpreted as stones (with the potential serious consequences of an unnecessary sphincterotomy).
Poor opacification and ignorance of anatomy may lead to missed or erroneous diagnoses in patients with bile duct injuries.
Congenital variations of biliopancreatic drainage are under-recognized. Early stages of chronic pancreatitis, and intraductal
mucinous tumors are easily missed with inadequate filling. Pancreas divisum may be missed when the ventral duct is rudimentary,
and the pancreatic pathology unassessed if dorsal cannulation is not achieved.
Few endoscopists have a radiologist on hand to help with fluoroscopy, film recording, or the immediate interpretation which
is needed to formulate therapeutic tactics. It is common practice for radiologists to report the available films after the
event, and major discrepancies have been noted , a fact which raises complex issues. Providing the reporting radiologist with a detailed copy of the endoscopic report is
helpful, and allows radiologists to communicate any differences of opinion.
There is a possibility of transmitting non-bacterial infections at ERCP, with an incubation period long enough to hide the
relationship, but there are no proven and reported cases. There is a definite risk of sepsis developing when biliary stents
become occluded. Patients present with fevers and shaking chills, and can deteriorate rapidly. Any stented patient (and caregivers)
must be warned about the possibility, and the need for speedy medical contact and resolution. Patients receiving plastic stents
for benign biliary strictures should be advised to undergo a routine stent service at 34 months; practice varies with malignant strictures Chapter 4. Endoscopists placing stents have a continuing responsibility to contact patients with reminders. Occasionally, patients
may willfully or accidentally avoid the repeat procedure, with considerable potential for serious complications. The concept
of long-term stenting for 'difficult' stones has been discredited because of the risk of delayed cholangitis .
Late effects of sphincterotomy
There has been much interest in the possible long-term adverse consequences of biliary sphincterotomy . When performed for 'papillary stenosis', there is a significant risk of further biliary-type symptoms, whether due to restenosis or an incorrect diagnosis (Chapter 6).
Sphincterotomy leads almost inevitably to bacterial contamination of the bile , which may be a potent promoter of pigment stone formation. One study showed a significant increase in the incidence of cholangiocarcinoma
after surgical sphincteroplasty , but a cohort study in Scandinavia found no such association after endoscopic sphincterotomy . Many patients have been followed for periods of 10 years or more after sphincterotomy for stone [332,334336,338340]. The chance of further biliary problems in these studies ranges from 5 to 24%, with an average of about 10% . The Amsterdam study had the highest figure (24%) and all but one of the patients had recurrent stones . In other series, some patients had episodes of cholangitis without stones, even cholangitis without stenosis of the sphincterotomy
Most of these long-term complications of sphincterotomy are easily managed endoscopically, remembering that repeat incisions
do carry a slightly greater risk. A few patients continue to reform stones every 612 months despite apparently adequate drainage, and may need to be scheduled for repeated endoscopic 'biliary laundry'.
Sphincterotomy with the gallbladder in place
Most patients having their ducts cleared of stones endoscopically have undergone cholecystectomy soon afterwards. However,
some have not, usually because the risk has been judged too great (and especially before the days of laparoscopic cholecystectomy).
Several series have examined the long-term risks of leaving the gallbladder in place . The reported need for cholecystectomy has ranged from 5 to 33% , but most of the follow-up periods are short. Two trials have addressed this issue recently. Thirty-four patients treated
endoscopically for acute biliary pancreatitis (and without cholecystectomy) were followed for a mean of 34 months; only 11.6%
developed further biliary complications . However, the Amsterdam group performed a randomized trial of 120 patients with the gallbladder in place, after biliary sphincterotomy.
No fewer than 47% of those treated expectantly developed further biliary symptoms, compared with 2% of those who underwent
early cholecystectomy . The suggestion that non-filling of the gallbladder at the index ERCP (indicating cystic duct obstruction) was a predictor
of future trouble has not been substantiated . However it seems clear that the risk is negligible in patients who have no stones remaining in the gallbladder, which is
sometimes the case in the context of gallstone pancreatitis .
The main risk of pancreatic sphincterotomy appears to be restenosis, which occurs in at least 20% of reported cases Chapter 6 and (Chapter 4).
It is usually treated endoscopically, but strictures that occur beneath the papilla can be challenging even for surgical repair.
Hopefully, better techniques (and new stents) may reduce this risk in the future.
Stenosis of the pancreatic orifice causing recurrent pancreatitis has been reported as a late complication of biliary sphincterotomy
Managing adverse events
All ERCP endoscopists experience complications. Each event requires specific skillful recognition and management (as detailed
above), but there are several very important general guidelines.
Prompt recognition and action
The keys to effective management of all complications are early recognition and prompt focused action. Delay is dangerous
both medically and legally. Patients in pain and distress after procedures should always be examined carefully, and never
simply 'reassured' without careful evaluation. If you are not personally on call on the night after your ERCP procedures, it is helpful to make
sure that the person covering is aware of what you have done. Get appropriate laboratory studies and radiographs, consult
the extensive literature, and do not hesitate to seek advice from other experts in the relevant fields. It is wise to consult
an (informed) surgeon early on for anything that might remotely require surgical intervention. Sometimes it may be appropriate
to offer transfer care of the patient to a specialty colleague, or to a larger medical center, but, if this happens, try to
keep in touch, and to show continuing interest and concern. Apparent abandonment alienates patients and their relatives, and
may lead to initiation of legal action.
Professionalism and communication
Endoscopists often feel devastated when serious complications occur. Your distress is understandable and worthy, and it is
important to be sympathetic, but it is equally important to be composed and matter of fact. Excessive apologies may give an
unfortunate impression. Never, never, attempt to cover up the facts. Poor communication is the basis for much unhappiness,
and many lawsuits. Remember that the truly informed patient, and any accompanying persons, have been told already that complications
can happen. This is an integral important part of the consent process. So it is appropriate and correct to address suspected
complications in that spirit. 'It looks as if we have a perforation here. We discussed that as a remote possibility beforehand, and I am sorry that it has
occurred. Here is what I think we should do.' It is also wise to contact and inform other interested relatives, referring physicians, supervisors and your Risk Management
Document what has happened, carefully and honestly in real time. Don't even think of adding notes retrospectively. The results
of many lawsuits hang on the quality of the documentation, or lack of it.
Learning from lawsuits
Fortunately, most complications do not result in legal action. Despite the fact that ERCP is the most dangerous of the routine
endoscopic procedures, there are far more claims after colonoscopy and upper endoscopy . There are several reasons why patients (or their survivors) may initiate a claim.
Communication, or lack of it, is often a major complaint. Too often we hear that 'we would never have consented to the procedure if we had known that this might happen'. Sometimes this is simply because patients don't want to hear, but often the consent process is quite inadequate. A hurried
conversation immediately before the procedure is not sufficient. Taking time to provide the information (face to face, and
in writing), making sure that it has been understood, and writing down that you have done it, is simply good medical practice
Good communication after an adverse event is equally important. Show that you care. Litigants are sometimes simply (and justifiably)
angry if they get the impression that you do not.
These are also often prominent, even if not stated. Hospital bills and loss of earnings can be crippling.
Standard of care practice
Once a lawsuit has been filed, the key issue is whether the endoscopist (and others involved) practiced within the 'standard of care'. This is defined in various ways, but comes down to what reasonable colleagues would do (and is expressed in court by what
expert witnesses opine). The report from the NIH consensus conference is a crucial resource , and is particularly forceful in recommending caution when considering ERCP in patients with little or no objective evidence
for pathology (i.e. 'suspected sphincter dysfunction').
The key standard of care issues are:
Was the ERCP procedure really indicated in the first place? The task clearly is to balance the possible benefits against the
potential risks . Although professional societies publish guidelines for the use of ERCP , the devil is in the details, e.g. how much elevation of liver tests or increased duct size constitutes 'objective evidence of pathology'. In practice, the validity of the decision to proceed will be judged by the severity of the symptoms, by the thoroughness
of prior treatment and investigations, and the process of communication. Were the symptoms (or other signs of pathology) really
that pressing? Had less invasive approaches (nowadays including MRCP) been exhausted, or at least considered and discussed
? There are some circumstances (such as postcholecystectomy pain with some abnormality of liver tests) which may justify ERCP
even if imaging is negative, but where it may be unwise to strive too hard (e.g. by prolonged attempts, or precutting) when
cannulation proves difficult.
For less experienced endoscopists, consideration of alternatives (especially for higher risk procedures) should include possible
referral to an expert center.
Was there an obvious deviation from customary practice, like placing a 10 Fr stent in a normal pancreatic duct, or trying
to extract a stone from the bile duct without sphincterotomy (or papillary balloon dilatation)? Did the level of suspicion
of pathology really justify a precut? Was there radiological evidence for over-manipulation of the pancreas, or of over-injection
(e.g. acinarization), or injection into a branch duct? The notes of the procedure nurse may contain important evidence, like
excessive sedation or contrast, or documentation of patient distress. Pretty endoscopic photographs may also be incriminating,
e.g. if they show sphincterotomy in an unusual direction.
Was the patient appropriately monitored, discharged in good condition, and properly advised? Was action taken promptly when
unexpected symptoms developed? Was the endoscopist available to advise? Among the most common errors are delay in action (particularly
in considering and managing perforation), and inadequate fluid resuscitation in patients with pancreatitis.
After more than 30 years, the risks of ERCP and its therapeutic procedures are now well documented. Pancreatitis and sedation-related
events are the commonest, but bleeding and perforation still occur. There are a host of rare complications. Understanding
and managing the main risk factors can keep these events to a minimum, but cannot eliminate them. For this reason, making
sure that patients understand what they are accepting is of crucial importance. Inexperience and over-confidence are dangerous
Outstanding issues and future trends
The two biggest issues for ERCP at the present time are the quality of practice, and how to minimize or eliminate postprocedure
pancreatitis. These are not unrelated, for we know that experts have lower complication rates, even while dealing with higher
risk clientele. Thus, we are forced to focus on how to maximize expertise.
Many experts for a long time have been advocating that fewer endoscopists should be trained in ERCP, so that their skills
can be maximized before and after entering practice. This trend is perhaps evident at long last, driven by several forces.
Firstly, diagnostic ERCP is obsolescent as non-invasive methods (especially MRCP) improve. This means that would-be ERCP practitioners
can often now see the suspected therapeutic issue beforehand. They must be prepared for the challenge, but have also the option
of referring problematic cases (e.g. hilar tumors and 'suspected sphincter dysfunction'). Secondly, the seminal studies of Freeman and colleagues, and a few others, have made endoscopists (and lawyers) much more
aware of certain high-risk behaviors, such as casual precutting. Thirdly, most gastroenterologists have no shortage of other
activities (not least screening colonoscopy) to keep them interested and busy. The final driver is the increasing sophistication
of our patients, who are learning that not all interventionists are equalas is well documented in surgery and are demanding the data with which to make informed choices .
All interventions carry some risks, which are acceptable if the indications are appropriate, i.e. when there are substantial
potential benefits. To do a better job of predicting benefit will require many more major prospective outcome studies. We
need careful objective and structured cohort studies of ERCP in various clinical contexts, and some randomized studies in
comparison with other approaches, such as surgery.
Thus, in the future, we hope that there will be fewer but very well trained and experienced ERCP practitioners, and that both
they and their patients will have a better understanding of the risk/benefit ratio in each case.
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