Cholecystocutaneous Fistula

Article Author:
George Mathew
Article Editor:
Steve Bhimji
11/15/2018 11:47:04 PM
PubMed Link:
Cholecystocutaneous Fistula


Cholecysto-cutaneous fistulas are a rare clinical entity seen today in surgical clinics. There are reports of spontaneous cholecysto-cutaneous fistulas occurring from as early as 17th century. However, today the condition occurs extremely infrequently. This condition is a  result of a complication from neglected calculous cholecystitis. Biliary tract disease is diagnosed early due to advances in imaging, and the efficient use of antibiotics has prevented the development of this condition.[1][2][3]


Cholecysto-cutaneous fistulas present as an uncommon complication of neglected calculous cholecystitis. This condition has also been associated with acalculous cholecystitis or carcinoma of the gall bladder. A significant proportion of patients with this condition present with nonspecific symptoms and rarely disclose a history of previous gallbladder disease.[4]


The majority of patients are older females. When questioned, patients may mention previous episodes of right upper quadrant pain. This pain hints at gallstone disease. The most common site of the fistulous opening is the right upper quadrant of the abdomen. Painless, draining fistulas associated with this condition have been reported in many locations on the abdominal wall such as right upper quadrant, right iliac fossa, umbilicus, right lumbar region, left lower quadrant, and even as far as the gluteal region. Gallbladder fistulas have been known to occur following percutaneous treatment for acute cholecystitis and reoccurrence of cholecystitis with the fistula forming along the previous track of the cholecystostomy drain.[5][6]


Obstruction of the biliary outflow by a gallstone is thought to play a significant role in the pathophysiology of the development of this condition. Obstruction of the cystic duct leads to increased intra-gallbladder pressure. Unrelieved obstruction to the bile outflow leads to compromise of gallbladder wall blood circulation as well as lymphatic drainage which eventually results in necrosis of the gallbladder wall. An open perforation of the gallbladder pericholecystic abscess follows. Once perforated, the gallbladder may drain into the peritoneal cavity, localized causing Perito-ni localized abscess. This abscess can then develop into an external fistula due to its adherence to the abdominal wall. It expels its contents through an area of least resistance or shortest route. Conditions such as polyarteritis nodosa, typhoid, trauma, or drug treatments such as steroids, may be predisposing factors. Carcinoma of the gallbladder is known to present with an external fistula. Cutaneous gallbladder fistula is usually a late sequelae of chronic biliary tract disease. It has also been reported after inadequate treatment with acute cholecystitis

History and Physical

The clinical presentation may be variable depending on the associated pathology, the age of the patient, and the presence or absence of an associated abdominal wall abscess. The typical clinical presentation is that of a patient's sinus persistently discharging bile. There is usually a history of chronic biliary tract disease even though patients may not report it as a primary complaint. At times the patient may give a history of the expulsion of gallstones through the fistula. The site of the external opening of the fistula is variable and depends on the anatomical course. The commonest site of the outer opening is the right upper quadrant of the abdominal wall. However, the opening of the fistula tract may be present in the left costal margin, right iliac fossa, right groin, or right gluteal region. Patients may be toxic when there is an acute infection or associated abscess. The character of the discharge from the fistula may vary according to the underlying pathology. A lump may be palpable deep to the fistula due to the underlying inflamed or malignant gallbladder.


Ultrasonography is the first modality of imaging in the background of gallstone disease, but it has not been found to be of significant use in gallbladder fistula even though it demonstrates the presence of gallstones reliably. CT scan is the most useful imaging modalities for diagnosing this complication. CT imaging will reveal evidence of gallstones and communication to the gallbladder. A CT fistulogram can demonstrate the fistula connecting to the gallbladder and biliary tract which is contributory to the establishment of this diagnosis. A CT fistulogram can be achieved by injecting diluted contrast through the fistulous tract while performing the CT. A CT fistulogram helps to delineate the course of the track accurately and establish the anatomical relationship of this tract. This imaging modality also helps excludes any internal fistula, and other associated pathology. A clear delineation of the fistulous tract helps in planning the approach and extent of surgery. Routine blood tests may not be helpful unless there is an abscess collection. MRI with Cholangiopancreatography (MRCP) has also been found to be useful in establishing the diagnosis. [7][8]

Treatment / Management

The management of cholecyst-cutaneous fistula requires initial drainage of any associated abscess and administration of appropriate antibiotics. If there is an associated mass, it is expedient to obtain a cytologic diagnosis by fine-needle aspiration cytology (FNAC) to exclude an underlying malignancy. If the cytology is negative, or there is no suspicion of malignancy, the next step to follow is an elective cholecystectomy once the patient is stable and his or her general condition optimized. An open cholecystectomy with excision of the fistulous tract is the definitive treatment. Laparoscopic cholecystectomy can be considered to reduce the morbidity since many of these patients will be older with multiple associated comorbidities. Percutaneous treatment with removal of the gallstones only is reserved for the elderly with multiple comorbidities, or for those who are too debilitated to withstand surgery. Before the definitive surgery is performed, an effort must be taken to ensure that there is no associated bile duct obstruction or stones. An indication of an unresectable disease is if a gallbladder fistula occurs in the setting of cancer with an associate dated mass. In this case, the overall outcome is dismal because gallbladder cancer has a predilection for seeding and spreading to the adjoining anatomical structures.[9][10]


  • Necrotizing fasciitis
  • Skin irritation
  • Malignant changes

Pearls and Other Issues

In any elderly patient who has a fistula discharging bile on the right abdominal wall, practitioners should consider the possibility of a cholecysto-cutaneous fistula. It is possible a fistula formed in a patient who underwent previous percutaneous treatment of an acute cholecystitis and has recurrent cholecystitis. Such patients should be investigated adequately for underlying pathology and associated biliary tract disease.

Enhancing Healthcare Team Outcomes

Cholecysto-cutaneous fistulas are rare today but like any cutaneous fistula need proper drainage and skin protection, while at the same time managing the primary cause. Nurses usually manage cholecysto-cutaneous fistulas in the same manner as any cutaneous fistula by recording the amount of drainage, characteristics of the drainage and at the same time providing skin protection.  The prognosis for benign causes is good as long as the primary condition is managed. However, in patients with a malignant cause, the prognosis is guarded and the fistula may not be treatable. It is important for healthcare workers to known that any chronic wound that is left untreated can develop malignant changes after 10-20 years, hence close monitoring is necessary.[8][7][11]