Primary Biliary Cirrhosis Treatment (PBC)

  • Medical Author:

    John M. Vierling M.D. is Professor of Medicine and Surgery at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, where he also serves as Director of Baylor Liver Health and Chief of Hepatology. In addition, he is the Director of Advanced Liver Therapies, a center devoted to clinical research in hepatobiliary diseases at St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital. Dr. Vierling is board certified in internal medicine and gastroenterology and a Fellow of the American College of Physicians.

  • Medical Editor: Bhupinder S. Anand, MBBS, MD, DPHIL (OXON)
    Bhupinder S. Anand, MBBS, MD, DPHIL (OXON)

    Bhupinder S. Anand, MBBS, MD, DPHIL (OXON)

    Dr. Anand received MBBS degree from Medical College Amritsar, University of Punjab. He completed his Internal Medicine residency at the Postgraduate Institute of medical Education and Research, Chandigarh, India. He was trained in the field of Gastroenterology and obtained the DPhil degree. Dr. Anand is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Gastroenterology.

woman with abdominal pain

Opiod antagonists for itching

The fact that some patients who receive opiate narcotics (such as morphine) develop itching led to the hypothesis that itching in cholestasis may be caused by the body's natural opiates, called endorphins. To test this hypothesis, patients with PBC who had itching were treated with the oral drug nalmephene, an antagonist (acts against or blocks the action) of opiates. Itching improved over a 9-month period. Some patients treated with the opiate antagonist, however, developed very unpleasant symptoms of opiate withdrawal when their natural endorphins were inhibited. Therefore, this drug is not appropriate for long-term use in PBC. A controlled study comparing an intravenous opiate antagonist called naloxone (Narcan) with inactive intravenous fluids showed that the naloxone improved itching in PBC patients. Because it must be given intravenously, naloxone also is inappropriate for long-term use.

Recently, the oral opiate antagonist, naltrexone (Revia), was tested in a small, randomized, controlled trial in PBC patients with itching. It improved itching in 50% of patients and did not cause opiate withdrawal symptoms. Naltrexone also improved symptoms of fatigue and depression, possibly by restoring the ability to sleep at night when itching is most severe. However, future studies are needed to assess its safety, how long it can be given, and whether patients will eventually become unresponsive (refractory) to its effects.

Charcoal hemoperfusion for itching

In uncontrolled studies, patients with PBC who had severe itching underwent a procedure called plasmapheresis. (Uncontrolled studies are studies in which the treatment is not compared with other treatments or placebos.) In this procedure, the blood is removed from the body, and the fluid phase (called plasma) of the blood is separated from the blood cells and platelets. The plasma is then percolated through a column containing activated charcoal. Finally, the plasma is remixed with the blood cells and returned intravenously to the patient. The idea is that the charcoal would remove some compound or compounds (as yet unknown) from the plasma that caused the itching. Anecdotally, many patients had relief of itching for periods ranging from days to months. However, no controlled trials (compared with other treatments or placebos) were performed. Hence, this procedure is still considered experimental and is not often used.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 6/7/2016

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