At Children’s Hospital Boston, we understand that you may have a lot of questions when your child is scheduled for an ERCP:

  • What does it mean?
  • What are the risks?
  • What do I need to do?

We’ve provided some answers to those questions here, and our experts can explain the procedure in more detail. 

When are ERCPs performed?

Around 75 percent of patients have already been brought to the hospital (often because of severe pain or jaundice) when the doctor determines that they need an ERCP. Their symptoms may be caused by:

  • a gallbladder stone that is blocking bile (a vital fluid that helps the body break down and absorb nutrients) from flowing freely through the bile ducts. Bile ducts are tiny—about the size of a juice box straw—so it’s not uncommon for a gallbladder stone to get stuck in one.
  • being born with a duct that is too narrow, or other abnormality
  • pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)

An ERCP may also be performed to investigate problems of the Sphincter of Oddi—a muscle that controls the opening and closing of the bile ducts. 

Does an ERCP hurt?

Since the gastrointestinal tract doesn’t have pain sensors, your child will not feel any pain; and our staff will be paying very close attention to make sure that he is sleeping comfortably.

What should I do to prepare my child for an ERCP?

Your child must have an empty stomach for an ERCP.  Here are some guidelines to follow:

After midnight the night before your child’s procedure, do not give him any:

  • solid food
  • milk
  • milk products
  • formula
  • juices with pulp, such as orange juice, pineapple juice or grapefruit juice

Your child can have clear liquids (including water, breast milk, apple juice, cranberry juice, Pedialyte® and Gastorade®) up until the times below:

  • if younger than six months - two hours before the test time
  •  if older than six months – three hours before test time

Who will perform the ERCP? 

A gastroenterologist (GI)—doctor who specializes in the gastrointestinal system—will perform the procedure. There will also be a nurse present, who will carefully observe your child for the entire time. 

Where will my child’s ERCP be performed?

At Children’s, ERCPs are most often performed in our Gastroenterology Procedure Unit (GPU).  Depending on scheduling, sometimes they may also be performed in the operating room. Your child’s doctor will determine the best location, and if your child is scheduled for the operating room, a nurse will call you the day before to tell you where to come. 

Where will I be during the test?

We ask that you wait for your child either in the GPU Family Waiting Area, or elsewhere in the hospital.

What will happen during the procedure?

First, your child will be given medicine intravenously (through an IV) to help him relax or fall asleep. The doctor will spray a numbing medicine in his mouth to make the test more comfortable.

He will be attached to a heart monitor by wires connected to three stickers on his chest, and also have a small lighted sticker on one of his fingers or toes that is connected to an oxygen monitor. 

The doctor will guide the endoscope down your child’s esophagus, into his stomach, and into his small intestine to the ampulla of Vater, which is the opening of the common bile duct and the pancreatic duct. The common bile duct branches off into many smaller ducts. 

The doctor will inject a small amount of special contrasting dye into your child’s bile ducts, pancreas and/or pancreatic duct. This dye shows up as a blue area on the monitors, which allows the doctor to see stones or other areas of blockage that need to be removed.

Removing a stone

If the doctor sees one or more stones, he’ll remove them. In order to do this, he may first make a tiny cut in a nearby muscle in order to increase the width by a few millimeters. He’ll then insert tiny tools (that may look like a balloon or a basket) through the endoscope and use them to “sweep” the duct, pulling out any stones or other debris that may have collected there. Sometimes a stone may be too large to be swept out, so the doctor will break it up, often with a laser or with chemicals.

Dilating and stenting a duct

Whether there is a gallstone or not, the doctor might also see that a duct is too narrow for bile to pass through (stricture). Strictures may be caused by an inflammatory condition, or they may be present at birth. 

To treat a stricture, the doctor will pass a tiny balloon through the endoscope into the duct, and then inflate the balloon under high pressure. When the balloon inflates, it causes a slight tear in the scar tissue that has built up in the duct and caused it to narrow. Once the balloon has created space in the duct, the doctor will insert a small plastic stent (tube) to keep it open, allowing the tear to  heal around this new, wider opening. 

For most children, the stent will stay in place for one to three months, and then the child will return to the hospital to have a procedure to remove the stent. Sometimes the doctor might find that the duct didn’t leave enough room when it healed, and insert a new stent to keep it open. 

Treating pancreatitis

If a child has recurring pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), scarring can build up in the pancreatic duct that can lead to strictures. Since these strictures can make the pancreatitis worse, the doctor will dilate and stent them, using the procedure described above.

Treating side effects of chemotherapy

Some chemotherapy treatments for cancer can cause the pancreatic duct to tear, and bile can leak into a child’s intestine, making him very sick. The doctor can put a stent across the leak, allowing the duct to heal solidly around it.

How long does the procedure last?

An ERCP often takes about two hours from start to finish. That includes a lot of set-up time: The actual procedure can be as short as half an hour or as long as two to three hours, depending on the situation. In general, the larger the child’s body, the less time it takes.

What complications are associated with ERCP?

Since manipulating a tissue of the body may cause it to swell, pancreatitis (inflammation/swelling of the pancreas) is a complication in 5 to 10 percent of ERCP. Sometimes this causes pain and vomiting. If this reaction is to occur, it usually develops within the first few hours after the procedure, and it’s common for children to stay at the hospital overnight for monitoring, just as a precaution. When pancreatitis does occur following an ERCP, it’s usually mild and short-lived.

How soon after the procedure can my child eat and drink?

Depending on the situation, most children are able to drink about two hours after the procedure, or even in the recovery area, if they feel up to it. They can usually eat something an hour or two after the procedure. We recommend starting with soft, low-fat foods, such as frozen yogurt. 

How will we be informed of the results?

Your child’s doctor will speak with you as soon as the procedure is over.

If you have any questions about the procedure, call the GI/Endoscopy Unit at 617- 355-6172 between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Ask to speak to one of the nurses.

For emergencies, you can call a GI doctor 24 hours a day. Call the hospital page operator at 617-355-6369 and ask for the GI fellow on call.

Learn about general information and resources for Children’s patients and their families.