Liver (hepatic) complications of cirrhosis
Liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma)
Cirrhosis due to any cause increases the risk of primary liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma). Primary refers to the fact that the tumor originates in the liver. A secondary liver cancer is one that originates elsewhere in the body and spreads (metastasizes) to the liver.
The most common symptoms and signs of primary liver cancer are abdominal pain and swelling, an enlarged liver, weight loss, and fever. In addition, liver cancers can produce and release a number of substances, including ones that cause an increased in red blood cell count (erythrocytosis), low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), and high blood calcium (hypercalcemia).
Some of the protein in food that escapes digestion and absorption is used by bacteria that are normally present in the intestine. While using the protein for their own purposes, the bacteria make substances that they release into the intestine to then be absorbed into the body. Some of these substances, such as ammonia, can have toxic effects on the brain. Ordinarily, these toxic substances are carried from the intestine in the portal vein to the liver where they are removed from the blood and detoxified.
When cirrhosis is present, liver cells cannot function normally either because they are damaged or because they have lost their normal relationship with the blood. In addition, some of the blood in the portal vein bypasses the liver through other veins. The result of these abnormalities is that toxic substances cannot be removed by the liver cells, and instead accumulate in the blood.
When the toxic substances accumulate sufficiently in the blood, the function of the brain is impaired, a condition called hepatic encephalopathy. Sleeping during the day rather than at night (reversal of the normal sleep pattern) is an early symptom of hepatic encephalopathy. Other symptoms include irritability, inability to concentrate or perform calculations, memory loss, confusion, or depressed levels of consciousness. Ultimately, severe hepatic encephalopathy causes coma and death.
The toxic substances also make the brains of patients with cirrhosis very sensitive to drugs that are normally filtered and detoxified by the liver. Doses of many drugs may have to be reduced to avoid a toxic buildup in cirrhosis, particularly sedatives and drugs used to promote sleep. Alternatively, drugs may be used that do not need to be detoxified or eliminated from the body by the liver, such as drugs eliminated by the kidneys.
Patients with worsening cirrhosis can develop hepatorenal syndrome. This syndrome is a serious complication in which the function of the kidneys is reduced. It is a functional problem in the kidneys, meaning there is no physical damage to the kidneys. Instead, the reduced function is due to changes in the way the blood flows through the kidneys themselves. The hepatorenal syndrome is defined as progressive failure of the kidneys to clear substances from the blood and produce adequate amounts of urine while other important functions of the kidney, such as retention of salt, are maintained. If liver function improves or a healthy liver is transplanted into a patient with hepatorenal syndrome, the kidneys usually begin to work normally again. This suggests that the reduced function of the kidneys is the result of either the accumulation of toxic substances in the blood or abnormal liver function when the liver fails. There are two types of hepatorenal syndrome. One type occurs gradually over months. The other occurs rapidly over a week or two.
Rarely, some patients with advanced cirrhosis can develop hepatopulmonary syndrome. These patients can experience difficulty breathing because certain hormones released in advanced cirrhosis cause the lungs to function abnormally. The basic problem in the lung is that not enough blood flows through the small blood vessels in the lungs that are in contact with the alveoli (air sacs) of the lungs. Blood flowing through the lungs is shunted around the alveoli and cannot pick up enough oxygen from the air in the alveoli. As a result, the patient experiences shortness of breath, particularly with exertion.