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Cirrhosis is a consequence of chronic liver disease characterized by replacement of liver tissue by fibrotic scar tissue as well as regenerative nodules, leading to progressive loss of liver function. Cirrhosis is most commonly caused by alcoholism and hepatitis C, but has many other possible causes.
Cirrhosis leading to hepatocellular carcinoma (autopsy specimen).
Liver cirrhosis as seen on an axial CT of the abdomen.
Ascites (fluid retention in the abdominal cavity) is the most common complication of cirrhosis and is associated with a poor quality of life, increased risk of infection, and a poor long-term outcome. Other potentially life-threatening complications are hepatic encephalopathy (confusion and coma) and bleeding from esophageal varices. Cirrhosis is generally irreversible once it occurs, and treatment generally focuses on preventing progression and complications. In advanced stages of cirrhosis the only option is a liver transplant.
The liver, the largest organ in the body, is essential in keeping the body functioning properly. It removes or neutralizes poisons from the blood, produces immune agents to control infection, and removes germs and bacteria from the blood. It makes proteins that regulate blood clotting and produces bile to help absorb fats and fat-soluble vitamins. You cannot live without a functioning liver.
The word “cirrhosis” is a neologism that derives from Greek kirrhos, meaning “tawny” (the orange-yellow colour of the diseased liver). While the clinical entity was known before, it was RenÃ© Laennec who gave it the name “cirrhosis” in his 1819 work in which he also describes the stethoscope.
Symptoms and signs
The following signs and symptoms may occur in the presence of cirrhosis or as a result of the complications of cirrhosis. Many are nonspecific and may occur in other diseases and do not necessarily point to cirrhosis. Likewise, the absence of any does not rule out the possibility of cirrhosis.
- Spider angiomata or spider nevi. Vascular lesions consisting of central arteriole surrounded by many smaller vessels due to an increase in estradiol. These occur in about 33% of cases.
- Palmar erythema. Exaggerations of normal speckled mottling of the palm, due to altered sex hormone metabolism.
- Nail changes.
- Muehrcke’s nails – paired horizontal bands separated by normal color due to hypoalbuminemia (low production of albumin).
- Terry’s nails – proximal two thirds of the nail plate appears white with distal one-third red, also due to hypoalbuminemia
- Clubbing — Angle between the nail plate and proximal nail fold > 180 degrees
- Hypertrophic osteoarthropathy. Chronic proliferative periostitis of the long bones that can cause considerable pain.
- Dupuytren’s contracture. Thickening and shortening of palmar fascia that leads to flexion deformities of the fingers. Thought to be due to fibroblastic proliferation and disorderly collagen deposition. It is relatively common (33% of patients).
- Gynecomastia. Benign proliferation of glandular tissue of male breasts presenting with a rubbery or firm mass extending concentrically from the nipples. This is due to increased estradiol and can occur up to 66% of patients.
- Hypogonadism. Manifested as impotence, infertility, loss of sexual drive, and testicular atrophy due to primary gonadal injury or suppression of hypothalamic or pituitary function.
- Liver size. Can be enlarged , normal, or shrunken.
- Splenomegaly. Due to congestion of the red pulp as a result of portal hypertension.
- Ascites. Accumulation of fluid in the peritoneal cavity giving rise to flank dullness (needs about 1500 mL to detect flank dullness).
- Caput medusa. In portal hypertension, the umbilical vein may open. Blood from the portal venous system may be shunted through the periumbilical veins into the umbilical vein and ultimately to the abdominal wall veins, manifesting as caput medusa.
- Cruveilhier-Baumgarten murmur. Venous hum heard in epigastric region due to collateral connections between portal system and the remnant of the umbilical vein in portal hypertension.
- Fetor hepaticus. Sweet pungent smell in breath due to increased dimethyl sulfide due to severe portal-systemic shunting.
- Jaundice. Yellow discoloring of the skin, eye, and mucus membranes due to increased bilirubin (at least 2-3 mg/dL or 30 mmol/L). Urine may also appear dark.
- Asterixis. Bilateral asynchronous flapping of outstretched, dorsiflexed hands seen in patients with hepatic encephalopathy.
- Many people with cirrhosis have no symptoms in the early stages of the disease. However, as scar tissue replaces healthy cells, liver function starts to fail and a person may experience the following symptoms: Weakness, fatigue, anorexia, weight loss, loss of appetite and abdominal pain.As the disease progresses, complications may develop. In some people, these may be the first signs of the disease.
Cirrhosis has many causes. In the United States, chronic alcoholism and hepatitis C are the most common ones.
Alcoholic liver disease (ALD). Alcoholic cirrhosis develops in 15% of individuals who drink heavily for more than a decade. There is great variability in the amount of alcohol needed to cause cirrhosis (as little as 3-4 drinks a day in some men and 2-3 in some women). Alcohol seems to injure the liver by blocking the normal metabolism of protein, fats, and carbohydrates. Patients may also have concurrent alcoholic hepatitis with fever, hepatomegaly, jaundice, and anorexia. AST and ALT are both elevated but less than 300 IU/L with a AST:ALT ratio > 2.0, a value rarely seen in other liver diseases. Liver biopsy may show hepatocyte necrosis, Mallory bodies, neutrophilic infiltration with perivenular inflammation.
Chronic hepatitis C. Infection with this virus causes inflammation of and low grade damage to the liver that over several decades can lead to cirrhosis. Can be diagnosed with serologic assays that detect hepatitis C antibody or viral RNA. The enzyme immunoassay, EIA-2, is the most commonly used screening test in the US.
Chronic hepatitis B. The hepatitis B virus is probably the most common cause of cirrhosis worldwide, especially South-East Asia, but it is less common in the United States and the Western world. Hepatitis B causes liver inflammation and injury that over several decades can lead to cirrhosis. Hepatitis D is dependent on the presence of hepatitis B, but accelerates cirrhosis in co-infection. Chronic hepatitis B can be diagnosed with detection of HBsAG > 6 months after initial infection. HBeAG and HBV DNA are determined to assess whether patient will need antiviral therapy.
Non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). In NASH, fat builds up in the liver and eventually causes scar tissue. This type of hepatitis appears to be associated with diabetes, protein malnutrition, obesity, coronary artery disease, and treatment with corticosteroid medications. This disorder is similar to that of alcoholic liver disease but patient does not have an alcohol history. Biopsy is needed for diagnosis.
Primary biliary cirrhosis. May be asymptomatic or complain of fatigue, pruritus, and non-jaundice skin hyperpigmentation with hepatomegaly. There is prominent alkaline phosphatase elevation as well as elevations in cholesterol and bilirubin. Gold standard diagnosis is antimitochondrial antibodies with liver biopsy as confirmation if showing florid bile duct lesions. It is more common in women.
Primary sclerosing cholangitis. PSC is a progressive cholestatic disorder presenting with pruritus, steatorrhea, fat soluble vitamin deficiencies, and metabolic bone disease. There is a strong association with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), especially ulcerative colitis. Diagnosis is best with contrast cholangiography showing diffuse, multifocal strictures and focal dilation of bile ducts, leading to a beaded appearance. Non-specific serum immunoglobulins may also be elevated.
Autoimmune hepatitis. This disease is caused by the immunologic damage to the liver causing inflammation and eventually scarring and cirrhosis. Findings include elevations in serum globulins, especially gamma globulins. Therapy with prednisone +/- azathioprine is beneficial. Cirrhosis due to autoimmune hepatitis still has 10-year survival of 90%+. There is no specific tool to diagnose autoimmune but it can be beneficial to initiate a trial of corticosteroids.
Hereditary hemochromatosis. Usually presents with family history of cirrhosis, skin hyperpigmentation, diabetes mellitus, pseudogout, and/or cardiomyopathy, all due to signs of iron overload. Labs will show fasting transferrin saturation of > 60% and ferritin > 300 ng/mL. Genetic testing may be used to identify HFE mutations. If these are present, biopsy may not need to be performed. Treatment is with phlebotomy to lower total body iron levels.
Wilson’s disease. Autosomal recessive disorder characterized by low serum ceruloplasmin and increased hepatic copper content on liver biopsy. May also have Kayser-Fleischer rings in the cornea and altered mental status.
Alpha 1-antitrypsin deficiency (AAT). Autosomal recessive disorder. Patients may also have COPD, especially if they have a history of tobacco smoking. Serum AAT levels are low. Recombinant AAT is used to prevent lung disease due to AAT deficiency.
Cardiac cirrhosis. Due to chronic right sided heart failure which leads to liver congestion.
Glycogen storage disease type IV
Drugs or toxins
Certain parasitic infections (such as schistosomiasis)
The doctor may diagnose cirrhosis on the basis of symptoms, laboratory tests, the medical history, and a physical examination. For example, during a physical examination, the doctor may notice that the liver feels harder or larger than usual and order blood tests that can show whether liver disease is present.
If looking at the liver is necessary to check for signs of disease, the doctor might order a computerized axial tomography (CAT) scan, ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or a scan of the liver using a radioisotope (a harmless radioactive substance that highlights the liver). Or the doctor might look at the liver using a laparoscope, an instrument that is inserted through the abdomen and relays pictures back to a computer screen.
A liver biopsy will confirm the diagnosis. For a biopsy, the doctor uses a needle to take a tiny sample of liver tissue, then examines it under the microscope for scarring or other signs of disease.
Liver damage from cirrhosis cannot be reversed, but treatment can stop or delay further progression and reduce complications. Treatment depends on the cause of cirrhosis and any complications a person is experiencing. For example, cirrhosis caused by alcohol abuse is treated by abstaining from alcohol. Treatment for hepatitis-related cirrhosis involves medications used to treat the different types of hepatitis, such as interferon for viral hepatitis and corticosteroids for autoimmune hepatitis. Cirrhosis caused by Wilson disease, in which copper builds up in organs, is treated with medications to remove the copper. These are just a few examplesâ€”treatment for cirrhosis resulting from other diseases depends on the underlying cause. In all cases, regardless of the cause, following a healthy diet and avoiding alcohol are essential because the body needs all the nutrients it can get, and alcohol will only lead to more liver damage. Light physical activity can help stop or delay cirrhosis as well.
Treatment will also include remedies for complications. For example, for ascites and edema, the doctor may recommend a low-sodium diet or the use of diuretics, which are drugs that remove fluid from the body. Antibiotics will be prescribed for infections, and various medications can help with itching. Protein causes toxins to form in the digestive tract, so eating less protein will help decrease the buildup of toxins in the blood and brain. The doctor may also prescribe laxatives to help absorb the toxins and remove them from the intestines.
For portal hypertension, the doctor may prescribe a blood pressure medication such as a beta-blocker. If varices bleed, the doctor may either inject them with a clotting agent or perform a so-called rubber-band ligation, which uses a special device to compress the varices and stop the bleeding.
When complications cannot be controlled or when the liver becomes so damaged from scarring that it completely stops functioning, a liver transplant is necessary. In liver transplantation surgery, a diseased liver is removed and replaced with a healthy one from an organ donor. About 80 to 90 percent of patients survive liver transplantation. Survival rates have improved over the past several years because of drugs such as cyclosporine and tacrolimus, which suppress the immune system and keep it from attacking and damaging the new liver.
For More Information:
American Liver Foundation (ALF)
75 Maiden Lane, Suite 603
New York, NY 10038â€“4810
Phone: 1â€“800â€“GOâ€“LIVER (465â€“4837),
United Network for Organ Sharing
P.O. Box 2484
Richmond, VA 23218
Phone: 1â€“888â€“894â€“6361 or 804â€“782â€“4800
Disclaimer: This information is not meant to be a substitute for professional medical advise or help. It is always best to consult with a Physician about serious health concerns. This information is in no way intended to diagnose or prescribe remedies.This is purely for educational purpose.