Utility of magnetic resonance cholangiography in the evaluation of biliary obstruction

J Am Coll Surg. 1999 Jul;189(1):63-71; discussion 71-2. doi: 10.1016/s1072-7515(99)00082-4.


Background: Evaluation of suspected biliary obstruction has traditionally involved a variety of imaging modalities including ultrasound, CT, and invasive cholangiography. These techniques have limitations because of poor visualization of intraductal stones (ultrasound and CT) and the need for an invasive procedure (ERCP and percutaneous transhepatic cholangiography). Magnetic resonance cholangiography (MRC) is a noninvasive imaging modality that provides good visualization of the hepatobiliary system. The aim of the present study was to determine the utility of MRC in evaluating patients with suspected biliary obstruction.

Study design: One hundred forty-three patients were identified with suspected acute biliary obstruction and underwent MRC. Patient selection was based on clinical criteria including an elevation in serum liver chemistries or evidence of biliary ductal dilatation on conventional imaging. MRC was performed using a half-Fourier acquisition single-shot turbo spin-echo sequence involving single breath-hold rapid image acquisition. A final diagnosis was determined in each patient based on invasive cholangiography, findings at surgery, and clinical course.

Results: Of the 143 patients, 73 had an obstructing biliary lesion. A malignant process was identified in 25 patients with final diagnoses of pancreatic cancer (n = 15), ampullary cancer (n = 4), cholangiocarcinoma (n = 3), and hepatic or nodal metastases (n = 3). MRC correctly identified biliary obstruction in all these patients and accurately identified the level of biliary obstruction in 24 of 25 patients. Based on the MRC images alone, a malignant process was suspected in 21 of the 25 patients. Forty patients were found to have common bile duct stones and eight patients had a benign distal bile duct stricture. MRC correctly identified common bile duct stones in 37 patients with one false-positive exam (sensitivity = 92%; specificity = 99%). MRC also correctly identified distal biliary strictures in eight patients. In the remaining 70 patients, no definite biliary obstruction was identified by MRC, and in all patients the absence of mechanical obstruction was confirmed by invasive cholangiography or overall clinical course.

Conclusions: This study demonstrates that MRC is able to accurately identify the level and cause of biliary obstruction in both malignant and benign disease. MRC may prove to be an important noninvasive tool in preoperative evaluation of patients with suspected biliary obstruction and identification of patients most likely to benefit from an invasive radiologic or surgical procedure.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Bile Duct Neoplasms / complications
  • Bile Duct Neoplasms / diagnosis
  • Bile Ducts / pathology*
  • Cholestasis / diagnosis*
  • Cholestasis / etiology
  • Female
  • Fourier Analysis
  • Gallstones / complications
  • Gallstones / diagnosis
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging* / instrumentation
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging* / methods
  • Male
  • Middle Aged