Cirrhosis (Liver)

What are the complications of cirrhosis?

Edema and ascites

As cirrhosis of the liver becomes severe, signals are sent to the kidneys to retain salt and water in the body. The excess salt and water first accumulates in the tissue beneath the skin of the ankles and legs because of the effect of gravity when standing or sitting. This accumulation of fluid is called edema or pitting edema. (Pitting edema refers to the fact that pressing a fingertip firmly against an ankle or leg with edema causes an indentation in the skin that persists for some time after release of the pressure. Actually, any type of pressure, such as from the elastic band of a sock, may be enough to cause pitting.) The swelling often is worse at the end of a day after standing or sitting and may lessen overnight as a result of the loss of the effects of gravity when lying down. As cirrhosis worsens and more salt and water are retained, fluid also may accumulate in the abdominal cavity between the abdominal wall and the abdominal organs. This accumulation of fluid (called ascites) causes swelling of the abdomen, abdominal discomfort, and increased weight.

Spontaneous bacterial peritonitis (SBP)

Fluid in the abdominal cavity (ascites) is the perfect place for bacteria to grow. Normally, the abdominal cavity contains a very small amount of fluid that is able to resist infection well, and bacteria that enter the abdomen (usually from the intestine) are killed or find their way into the portal vein and to the liver where they are killed. In cirrhosis, the fluid that collects in the abdomen is unable to resist infection normally. In addition, more bacteria find their way from the intestine into the ascites. Therefore, infection within the abdomen and the ascites, referred to as spontaneous bacterial peritonitis or SBP, is likely to occur. SBP is a life- threatening complication. Some patients with SBP have no symptoms, while others have fever, chills, abdominal pain and tenderness, diarrhea, and worsening ascites.

Bleeding from esophageal varices

In the cirrhotic liver, the scar tissue blocks the flow of blood returning to the heart from the intestines and raises the pressure in the portal vein (portal hypertension). When pressure in the portal vein becomes high enough, it causes blood to flow around the liver through veins with lower pressure to reach the heart. The most common veins through which blood bypasses the liver are the veins lining the lower part of the esophagus and the upper part of the stomach.

As a result of the increased flow of blood and the resulting increase in pressure, the veins in the lower esophagus and upper stomach expand and then are referred to as esophageal and gastric varices; the higher the portal pressure, the larger the varices and the more likely a patient is to bleed from the varices into the esophagus or stomach.

Bleeding from varices usually is severe and, without immediate treatment, can be fatal. Symptoms of bleeding from varices include vomiting blood (the vomitus can be red blood mixed with clots or "coffee grounds" in appearance, the latter due to the effect of acid on the blood), passing stool that is black and tarry due to changes in the blood as it passes through the intestine (melena), and orthostatic dizziness or fainting (caused by a drop in blood pressure especially when standing up from a lying position).

Bleeding also may occur from varices that form elsewhere in the intestines, for example, the colon, but this is rare. For reasons yet unknown, patients hospitalized because of actively bleeding esophageal varices have a high risk of developing spontaneous bacterial peritonitis.

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Reviewed on 3/5/2014
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