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Bile reflux into the pancreatic duct after impaction of a stone in a common pancreaticobiliary channel has been suggested to be the initiating factor in gallstone pancreatitis. Such reflux would require that the impacted stone be smaller than the length of the common channel. The incidence of common channels was studied and gallstone size was compared with common channel length in patients with gallstone pancreatitis and those with cholelithiasis or choledocholithiasis without pancreatitis. Sixty-seven per cent of patients with gallstone pancreatitis had a common channel present on intraoperative cholangiography versus 32% of patients with cholelithiasis or choledocholithiasis without pancreatitis (p < 0.005). Common channel length was greater than the diameter of the smallest stone in nine of 27 patients with gallstone pancreatitis and in 13 of 109 patients with cholelithiasis or choledocholithiasis without pancreatitis (p < 0.025). In conclusion, common channels are more frequent in patients with gallstone pancreatitis than in patients with other biliary tract disease. Furthermore, gallstone pancreatitis is associated with stones that are smaller than the common channel, which favors obstruction of both pancreatic and bile ducts while allowing reflux of contents between them.