Sclerosing cholangitis refers to swelling (inflammation), scarring, and destruction of the bile ducts inside and outside of the liver.
Primary sclerosing cholangitis; PSC
Causes, incidence, and risk factors
The cause of this condition is usually unknown.
The disease may be seen in patients who have:
- Autoimmune disorders
- Chronic pancreatitis
- Inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis)
Genetic factors may also be responsible. Sclerosing cholangitis occurs more often in men than women. This disorder is rare in children.
Sclerosing cholangitis may also be caused by:
- Infections in the liver, gallbladder, and bile ducts
The first symptoms are usually:
- Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
However, some people may have no symptoms.
Other symptoms may include:
Signs and tests
Some people do not have symptoms, but blood work shows that they have abnormal liver function. The doctor will look for:
- Diseases that cause similar problems
- Diseases that often occur with this condition (especially inflammatory bowel disease)
Tests that show cholangitis include:
- Abdominal CT scan
- Abdominal ultrasound
- Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP)
- Liver biopsy
- Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP)
- Percutaneous transhepatic cholangiogram (PTC)
Blood tests include:
- Liver enzymes (liver function tests)
Medications that may be used include:
- Ursodeoxycholic acid (ursodiol)
- Fat-soluble vitamins (D, E, A, K)
- Antibiotics for infections in the bile ducts
- Medications that quiet the immune system (prednisone, azathioprine, cyclosporine, methotrexate)
- Inserting a long, thin tube with a balloon at the end to open up narrowing (endoscopic balloon dilation of strictures)
- Placement of a drain or tube for major narrowing (strictures) of biliary ducts
- Proctocolectomy (for those who have both ulcerative colitis and sclerosing cholangitis)
- Liver transplant
How well patients do varies. The disease tends to get worse over time and sometimes patients develop:
Some patients develop infections of the bile ducts that keep returning.
People with this condition have an increased risk of developing cancer of the bile ducts (cholangiocarcinoma). They should be checked regularly with a liver imaging test and blood tests.
- Bleeding esophageal varices
- Cancer in the bile ducts (cholangiocarcinoma)
- Cirrhosis and liver failure
- Infection of the biliary system (cholangitis)
- Narrowing of the bile ducts (strictures)
- Vitamin deficiencies
Gordon FD. Primary sclerosing cholangitis. Surg Clin North Am. 2008;88:1385-1407.
Ross AS, Kowdley KV. Sclerosing cholangitis and recurrent pyogenic cholangitis. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger & Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 9th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2010:chap 68.
Last reviewed 8/11/2011 by Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studis, University of Washington, School of Medicine; and George F. Longstreth, MD, Department of Gastroenterology, Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program, San Diego, California. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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