Gallbladder polyp

Dr Henry Knipe and Dr Yuranga Weerakkody et al.

Gallbladder polyps are elevated lesions on the mucosal surface of the gallbladder. The vast majority are benign, but malignant forms are seen. Gallbladder polyps may be detected by ultrasound, CT, or MRI, but are usually best characterised on ultrasound.

Gallbladder polyps are relatively frequent, seen in up to 7% of the population 1,7,12. Over 90% are benign, and the majority are cholesterol polyps.

Cholesterol polyps are most frequently identified in patients between 40-50 years of age and are more common in women (F:M, 2.9:1) 3

Typically gallbladder polyps are incidentally found on upper abdominal imaging, usually during imaging for upper abdominal discomfort. Unless large, polyps are asymptomatic 1,3.

A wide variety of entities appear as polyps and histology is variable:

Cholesterol polyps appear as yellow, lobulated, and often pedunculated masses. 

Cholesterol polyps are composed of lipid-laden macrophages, covered by normal epithelium 3.

Patients with Peutz-Jeghers syndrome have an increased prevalence of adenomas within the gallbladder.

In most instances, predicting histology based purely on imaging is not possible, with the possible exception of cholesterol polyps in some instances (see below), and thus features that are predictive of benign vs malignant disease should be noted (see benign vs malignant features of gallbladder polyps) 1,6,7

Overall size is probably the most useful indicator of malignancy, with polyps over 10 mm in diameter having a reported malignancy rate of 37-88% 3.

Ultrasound is the best initial imaging choice and is often able to separate cholesterol polyps from those requiring treatment. General features of gallbladder polyps are a non-shadowing polypoid ingrowth into gallbladder lumen, which is usually immobile unless there is a relatively long pedunculated component.

Features of a cholesterol polyp include 8:

  • small size 
    • over 90% are <10 mm, the vast majority less than <5 mm
  • echogenicity varies with the size
    • small polyps are echogenic but non-shadowing
    • larger cholesterol polyps tend to be hypoechoic
  • morphology
    • small polyps may be adherent to the wall and smooth
    • larger lesions tend to be pedunculated and granular in outline

Adenomas, on the other hand, tend to be larger, solitary, more often sessile with internal vascularity, and of intermediate echogenicity. It is impossible to confidently distinguish an adenoma from an adenocarcinoma 6-8.

Rarely, endoscopic ultrasound may be useful to further assess gallbladder polyps as it may generate higher resolution images 7-8.

CT is often unable to detect small gallbladder polyps. Larger polyps will appear as soft tissue attenuation projections into the lumen of the gallbladder and will demonstrate enhancement similar to that of the rest of the gallbladder. More intense enhancement should be viewed with suspicion, as it is associated with increased vascularity in malignancy.

In 2017 the joint guidelines guidelines between the European Society of Gastrointestinal and Abdominal Radiology (ESGAR), European Association for Endoscopic Surgery and other Interventional Techniques (EAES), International Society of Digestive Surgery - European Federation (EFISDS) and European Society of Gastrointestinal Endoscopy (ESGE) were published and provide the most up to date and comprehensive guidance 13:

  • polyp >10 mm: increased risk of malignancy, cholecystectomy recommended
  • polyp <10 mm
    • symptoms attributed to the gallbladder: cholecystectomy suggested if no other cause for the symptoms determined (polyp may be indicative of underlying occult calculus or inflammation)
    • if the patient has risk factors* for gallbladder malignancy:
      • polyp <6 mm
        • follow-up ultrasound at 6 months, then yearly for 5 years
        • an increase in size ≥2 mm: consider cholecystectomy
      • polyp >6 mm: consider cholecystectomy
    • no risk factors for gallbladder malignancy:
      • polyp <6 mm: follow-up ultrasound at 1, 3 and 5 years
      • polyp >6 mm:
        • follow up ultrasound at 6 months, then yearly for 5 years
        • an increase in size ≥2 mm: consider cholecystectomy

*risk factors: >50 years, primary sclerosing cholangitis, Indian ethnicity, sessile polyp (including focal wall thickening >4 mm) 

Statistically, gallbladder polyps are common and gallbladder cancer is rare, so very few polyps progress to gallbladder cancer. There is also controversy regarding the development of gallbladder cancer and some suggest that polyps may not actually progress to cancer 10.

A previously commonly accepted strategy is:

  • ≤6 mm: no further follow up necessary 6,10
  • 6-9 mm: follow up to ensure no interval growth; follow-up interval varies from 3 to 6 months 6,9
  • ≥10 mm: surgical consultation
    • usually warrants cholecystectomy
    • if no cholecystectomy, annual follow up is justified 11

Lower thresholds for follow up or intervention may be warranted if the patient population is known to have a higher risk of gallbladder carcinoma (e.g. higher incidences in Pakistan, Ecuador, and females in India).

The differential for a gallbladder polyp is limited, and includes 6:

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Article information

rID: 7604
Synonyms or Alternate Spellings:
  • Cholesterol polyp of the gallbladder
  • Gallbladder polyps
  • Polyp of gallbladder

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Cases and figures

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    Figure 1: management (European guidelines)
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    Case 3: on CT
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    Case 6: malignant gallbladder polyp
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