Consensus definition of sludge and microlithiasis as a possible cause of pancreatitis

Zorniak, M., Sirtl, S., Beyer, G., Mahajan, U. M., Bretthauer, K., Schirra, J., Schulz, C., Kohlmann, T., Lerch, M. M., Mayerle, J., and Team, L. M. E. S. (2023). Gut [Epub ahead of print]. doi: 10.1136/gutjnl-2022-327955


Objective: In up to 20% of patients, the aetiology of acute pancreatitis (AP) remains elusive and is thus called idiopathic. On more detailed review these cases can often be explained through biliary disease and are amenable to treatment. Findings range from biliary sludge to microlithiasis but their definitions remain fluid and controversial.

Design: A systematic literature review (1682 reports, following the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses guidelines) analysed definitions of biliary sludge and microlithiasis, followed by an online international expert survey (30 endoscopic ultrasound/hepatobiliary and pancreatic experts; 36 items) which led to definitions of both. These were consented by Delphi voting and clinically evaluated in a retrospective cohort of patients with presumed biliary pancreatitis.

Results: In 13% of original articles and 19.2% of reviews, microlithiasis and biliary sludge were used synonymously. In the survey, 41.7% of experts described the term 'sludge' and 'microlithiasis' as identical findings. As a consequence, three definitions were proposed, agreed on and confirmed by voting to distinctly discriminate between biliary sludge (hyperechoic material without acoustic shadowing) and microlithiasis (echorich calculi of ≤5 mm with acoustic shadowing) as opposed to larger biliary stones, both for location in gallbladder and bile ducts. In an initial attempt to investigate the clinical relevance in a retrospective analysis in 177 confirmed cases in our hospital, there was no difference in severity of AP if caused by sludge, microlithiasis or stones.

Conclusion: We propose a consensus definition for the localisation, ultrasound morphology and diameter of biliary sludge and microlithiasis as distinct entities. Interestingly, severity of biliary AP was not dependent on the size of concrements warranting prospective randomised studies which treatment options are adequate to prevent recurrence.