Cirrhosis/sɪˈroʊsɪs/ (from Greek kirrhos [κιρρός] "yellowish" and the common Greek suffix -sis meaning "condition") is a result of advanced liver disease. It is characterized by replacement of liver tissue by fibrosis (scar tissue) and regenerative nodules (lumps that occur due to attempted repair of damaged tissue). These changes lead to loss of liver function. Cirrhosis is most commonly caused by alcoholism, hepatitis B and hepatitis C, and fatty liver disease, but has many other possible causes. Some cases are idiopathic (of unknown cause).
Ascites (fluid retention in the abdominal cavity) is the most common complication of cirrhosis. It 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 irreversible, and treatment usually focuses on preventing progression and complications. In advanced stages of cirrhosis the only option is a liver transplant.
Cirrhosis has many possible manifestations. These signs and symptoms may be either as a direct result of the failure of liver cells or secondary to the resultant portal hypertension. There are also some manifestations whose causes are nonspecific but may occur in cirrhosis. Likewise, the absence of any does not rule out the possibility of cirrhosis.
The following features are as a direct consequence of liver cells not functioning.
Spider angiomata or spider nevi are vascular lesions consisting of a central arteriole surrounded by many smaller vessels (hence the name "spider") and occur due to an increase in estradiol. One study found that spider angiomata occur in about 1/3 of cases.
Palmar erythema is a reddening of palms at the thenar and hypothenar eminences also as a result of increased estrogen.
Gynecomastia, or increase in breast gland size in men that is not cancerous, is caused by increased estradiol and can occur in up to 2/3 of patients. This is different from increase in breast fat in overweight patients.
Hypogonadism, a decrease in sex hormones manifest as impotence, infertility, loss of sexual drive, and testicular atrophy, can result from primary gonadal injury or suppression of hypothalamic/pituitary function. Hypogonadism is associated with cirrhosis due to alcoholism and hemochromatosis.
Liver size can be enlarged, normal, or shrunken in patients with cirrhosis.
Ascites, accumulation of fluid in the peritoneal cavity (space in the abdomen), gives rise to flank dullness (needs about 1500 ml to detect flank dullness). This may be visible as increase in abdominal girth.
Jaundice is yellow discoloration of the skin and mucous membranes (with the eye being especially noticeable) due to increased bilirubin (at least 2–3 mg/dL or 30 µmol/L). Urine may also appear dark.
Liver cirrhosis increases resistance to blood flow and higher pressure in the portal venous system, resulting in portal hypertension. Effects of portal hypertension include:
Splenomegaly (increase in size of the spleen) is found in 35% to 50% of patients.
Esophageal varices result from collateral portal blood flow through vessels in the stomach and esophagus (a process called Portacaval anastomosis). When these blood vessels become enlarged, they are called varices and are more likely to burst.
Caput medusa are dilated periumbilical collateral veins due to portal hypertension. Blood from the portal venous system may be shunted through the periumbilical veins and ultimately to the abdominal wall veins, manifesting as a pattern that may resemble the head of Medusa.
Cruveilhier-Baumgarten murmur is a venous hum heard in the epigastric region (on examination by stethoscope) due to collateral connections forming between portal system and the periumbilical veins as a result of portal hypertension.
There are some changes seen in cirrhosis whose causes are not clearly known. They may also be a sign of other non-liver related causes.
Dupuytren's contracture. Thickening and shortening of palmar fascia (tissue on the palm of the hands) that leads to flexion deformities of the fingers. Caused by fibroblastic proliferation (increased growth) and disorderly collagen deposition. It is relatively common (33% of patients).
Hepatic encephalopathy - the liver does not clear ammonia and related nitrogenous substances from the blood, which are carried to the brain, affecting cerebral functioning: neglect of personal appearance, unresponsiveness, forgetfulness, trouble concentrating, or changes in sleep habits. This can be seen on exam by asterixis which is bilateral asynchronous flapping of outstretched, dorsiflexed hands seen in patients with hepatic encephalopathy.
Sensitivity to medication caused by decreased metabolism of the active compounds.
It has many possible causes; sometimes more than one cause is present in the same person. Globally, 57% of cirrhosis is attributable to either hepatitis B (30%) or hepatitis C (27%). Alcohol consumption is another important cause, accounting for about 20% of the cases.
Alcoholic liver disease (ALD). Alcoholic cirrhosis develops for 10–20% of individuals who drink heavily for a decade or more. Alcohol seems to injure the liver by blocking the normal metabolism of protein, fats, and carbohydrates. This injury happens through the formation of acetaldehyde from alcohol which itself is reactive, but also leads to the accumulation of products in the liver. Patients may also have concurrent alcoholic hepatitis with fever, hepatomegaly, jaundice, and anorexia. AST and ALT are both elevated but less than 300 IU/litre with an AST:ALT ratio > 2.0, a value rarely seen in other liver diseases. In the United States, 2/5 of cirrhosis related deaths are due to alcohol.
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 obesity (40% of NASH patients) diabetes, protein malnutrition, 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.
Chronic hepatitis C. Infection with the hepatitis C virus causes inflammation of the liver and a variable grade of damage to the organ. Over several decades this inflammation and grade change can lead to cirrhosis. Among patients with chronic hepatitis C 20-30% will develop cirrhosis. Cirrhosis caused by hepatitis C and alcoholic liver disease are the most common reasons for liver transplant. 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 causes liver inflammation and injury that over several decades can lead to cirrhosis. Hepatitis D is dependent on the presence of hepatitis B and 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 needs antiviral therapy.
Primary biliary cirrhosis. Damage of the bile ducts leading to secondary liver damage. 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 (positive in 90% of PBC patients). Liver biopsy if done shows 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 and/or azathioprine is beneficial. Cirrhosis due to autoimmune hepatitis still has 10-year survival of 80+ %.
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 show fasting transferrin saturation of > 60% and ferritin > 300 ng/ml. Genetic testing may be used to identify HFE mutations. If these mutations 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, and elevated 24-hour urine copper. May also have Kayser-Fleischer rings in the cornea and altered mental status. This condition affects 1 in 30,000 people.
Cirrhosis is often preceded by hepatitis and fatty liver (steatosis), independent of the cause. If the cause is removed at this stage, the changes are still fully reversible.
The pathological hallmark of cirrhosis is the development of scar tissue that replaces normal parenchyma. This scar tissue blocks the portal flow of blood through the organ therefore disturbing normal function. Recent research shows the pivotal role of the stellate cell, a cell type that normally stores vitamin A, in the development of cirrhosis. Damage to the hepatic parenchyma (due to inflammation) leads to activation of the stellate cell, which increases fibrosis (called myofibroblast) and obstructs blood flow in the circulation. In addition, it secretes TGF-β1, which leads to a fibrotic response and proliferation of connective tissue. Furthermore, it secretes TIMP 1 and 2, naturally occurring inhibitors of matrix metalloproteinases, which prevents them from breaking down fibrotic material in the extracellular matrix.
The fibrous tissue bands (septa) separate hepatocyte nodules, which eventually replace the entire liver architecture, leading to decreased blood flow throughout. The spleen becomes congested, which leads to hypersplenism and increased sequestration of platelets. Portal hypertension is responsible for most severe complications of cirrhosis.
The gold standard for diagnosis of cirrhosis is a liver biopsy, through a percutaneous, transjugular, laparoscopic, or fine-needle approach. A biopsy is not necessary if the clinical, laboratory, and radiologic data suggests cirrhosis. Furthermore, there is a small but significant risk to liver biopsy, and cirrhosis itself predisposes for complications caused by liver biopsy. The best predictors of cirrhosis are ascites, platelet count <160,000/mm3, spider angiomata and Bonacini cirrhosis discriminant score greater than 7.
The following findings are typical in cirrhosis:
Thrombocytopenia - typically multifactorial. Due to alcoholic marrow suppression, sepsis, lack of folate, sequestering in the spleen as well as decreased thrombopoietin. However, this rarely results in platelet count < 50 000/mL.
Aminotransferases - AST and ALT are moderately elevated, with AST > ALT. However, normal aminotransferases do not preclude cirrhosis.
Liver cirrhosis as seen on an axial CT of the abdomen.
Ultrasound is routinely used in the evaluation of cirrhosis. It may show a small and nodular liver in advanced cirrhosis along with increased echogenicity with irregular appearing areas. Other findings suggestive of cirrhosis in imaging are an enlarged caudate lobe, widening of the liver fissures and enlargement of the spleen. An enlarged spleen (splenomegaly), which normally measures less than 11–12 cm in adults, is suggestive of cirrhosis with portal hypertension in the right clinical setting. Ultrasound may also screen for hepatocellular carcinoma, portal hypertension, and Budd-Chiari syndrome (by assessing flow in the hepatic vein).
Other tests performed in particular circumstances include abdominal CT and liver/bile duct MRI (MRCP).
Gastroscopy (endoscopic examination of the esophagus, stomach, and duodenum) is performed in patients with established cirrhosis to exclude the possibility of esophageal varices. If these are found, prophylactic local therapy may be applied (sclerotherapy or banding) and beta blocker treatment may be commenced.
Rarely are diseases of the bile ducts, such as primary sclerosing cholangitis, causes of cirrhosis. Imaging of the bile ducts, such as ERCP or MRCP (MRI of biliary tract and pancreas) may aid in the diagnosis.
Cirrhosis leading to hepatocellular carcinoma (autopsy specimen).
Macroscopically, the liver is initially enlarged, but with progression of the disease, it becomes smaller. Its surface is irregular, the consistency is firm, and the color is often yellow (if associated steatosis). Depending on the size of the nodules there are three macroscopic types: micronodular, macronodular, and mixed cirrhosis. In micronodular form (Laennec's cirrhosis or portal cirrhosis) regenerating nodules are under 3 mm. In macronodular cirrhosis (post-necrotic cirrhosis), the nodules are larger than 3 mm. The mixed cirrhosis consists of nodules with different sizes.
However, cirrhosis is defined by its pathological features on microscopy: (1) the presence of regenerating nodules of hepatocytes and (2) the presence of fibrosis, or the deposition of connective tissue between these nodules. The pattern of fibrosis seen can depend upon the underlying insult that led to cirrhosis. Fibrosis can also proliferate even if the underlying process that caused it has resolved or ceased. The fibrosis in cirrhosis can lead to destruction of other normal tissues in the liver: including the sinusoids, the space of Disse, and other vascular structures, which leads to altered resistance to blood flow in the liver and portal hypertension.
The severity of cirrhosis is commonly classified with the Child-Pugh score. This score uses bilirubin, albumin, INR, presence and severity of ascites, and encephalopathy to classify patients in class A, B, or C. Class A has a favourable prognosis, while class C is at high risk of death. It was devised in 1964 by Child and Turcotte and modified in 1973 by Pugh and others.
The hepatic venous pressure gradient, (difference in venous pressure between afferent and efferent blood to the liver) also determines severity of cirrhosis, although hard to measure. A value of 16 mm or more means a greatly increased risk of dying.
Key prevention strategies for cirrhosis and its compensation are population-wide interventions to reduce alcohol intake (through pricing strategies, public health campaigns and personal counseling), programs to reduce the transmission of viral hepatitis, and screening of relatives of people with hereditary liver diseases.
Little is known on modulators of cirrhosis risk and progression. Coffee consumption appears to help protect against cirrhosis.
Generally, liver damage from cirrhosis cannot be reversed, but treatment could stop or delay further progression and reduce complications. A healthy diet is encouraged, as cirrhosis may be an energy-consuming process. Close follow-up is often necessary. Antibiotics are prescribed for infections, and various medications can help with itching. Laxatives, such as lactulose, decrease risk of constipation; their role in preventing encephalopathy is limited.
Alcoholic 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's disease, in which copper builds up in organs, is treated with chelation therapy (for example, penicillamine) to remove the copper.
Preventing further liver damage
Regardless of underlying cause of cirrhosis, alcohol and paracetamol, as well as other potentially damaging substances, are discouraged. Vaccination of susceptible patients should be considered for Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B.
If complications cannot be controlled or when the liver ceases functioning, liver transplantation is necessary. Survival from liver transplantation has been improving over the 1990s, and the five-year survival rate is now around 80%. The survival rate depends largely on the severity of disease and other medical problems in the recipient. In the United States, the MELD score is used to prioritize patients for transplantation. Transplantation necessitates the use of immune suppressants (cyclosporine or tacrolimus).
In patients with previously stable cirrhosis, decompensation may occur due to various causes, such as constipation, infection (of any source), increased alcohol intake, medication, bleeding from esophageal varices or dehydration. It may take the form of any of the complications of cirrhosis listed below.
Palliative care is specialized medical care that focuses on providing patients with relief from the symptoms, pain, and stress of a serious illness, such as cirrhosis. The goal of palliative care is to improve quality of life for both the patient and the patient's family and it is appropriate at any stage and for any type of cirrhosis.
Especially in the later stages, people with cirrhosis experience significant symptoms such as abdominal swelling, itching, leg edema, and chronic abdominal pain which would be amenable for treatment through palliative care. Because the disease is not curable without a transplant, palliative care can also help with discussions regarding the person's wishes concerning health care power of attorney, Do Not Resuscitate decisions and life support, and potentially hospice. People with cirrhosis are rarely referred to palliative care.
Salt restriction is often necessary, as cirrhosis leads to accumulation of salt (sodium retention). Diuretics may be necessary to suppress ascites. Diuretic options for inpatient treatment include aldosterone antagonists (spironolactone) and loop diuretics. Aldosterone antagonists are preferred for people who can take oral medications and are not in need of an urgent volume reduction. Loop diuretics can be added as additional therapy.
If a rapid reduction of volume is required, paracentesis is the preferred option. This procedure requires the insertion of a plastic tube into the peritoneal cavity. Human albumin solution is usually given to prevent complications from the rapid reduction. In addition to being more rapid than diuretics, 4–5 liters of paracentesis is more successful in comparison to diuretic therapy.
Esophageal variceal bleeding
For portal hypertension, propranolol is a commonly used agent to lower blood pressure over the portal system. In severe complications from portal hypertension, transjugular intrahepatic portosystemic shunting is occasionally indicated to relieve pressure on the portal vein. As this shunting can worsen encephalopathy, it is reserved for those patients at low risk of encephalopathy. TIPS is generally regarded only as a bridge to liver transplantation or as a palliative measure.
High-protein food increases the nitrogen balance, and would theoretically increase encephalopathy; in the past, this was therefore eliminated as much as possible from the diet. Recent studies show that this assumption was incorrect, and high-protein foods are even encouraged to maintain adequate nutrition.
Which refers to changes in the mucosa of the stomach in people with portal hypertension, and is associated with cirrhosis severity.
Cirrhosis can cause immune system dysfunction, leading to infection. Signs and symptoms of infection may be aspecific and are more difficult to recognize (for example, worsening encephalopathy but no fever).
Hepatocellular carcinoma is a primary liver cancer that is more common in people with cirrhosis. People with known cirrhosis are often screened intermittently for early signs of this tumor, and screening has been shown to improve outcomes.
Cirrhosis and chronic liver disease were the tenth leading cause of death for men and the twelfth for women in the United States in 2001, killing about 27,000 people each year. Also, the cost of cirrhosis in terms of human suffering, hospital costs, and lost productivity is high.
Established cirrhosis has a 10-year mortality of 34–66%, largely dependent on the cause of the cirrhosis; alcoholic cirrhosis has a worse prognosis than primary biliary cirrhosis and cirrhosis due to hepatitis. The risk of death due to all causes is increased twelvefold; if one excludes the direct consequences of the liver disease, there is still a fivefold increased risk of death in all disease categories.
The word "cirrhosis" derives from Greek κιρρός [kirrhós] meaning yellowish, tawny (the orange-yellow colour of the diseased liver) + the common Greek suffix of the third declension -sis known from other Greek-originated terms (such as ly-sis, amyloido-sis, necro-sis etc.) that in Greek means "condition" (thus cirrho+sis = a yellowish condition or a condition that makes one yellowish). While the clinical entity was known before, it was René Laennec who gave it the name "cirrhosis" (in the same 1819 work in which he also described the stethoscope).
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