Liver Cirrhosis: Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment
What is Liver cirrhosis?
The liver plays numerous critical roles in life. Specifically, it helps the body absorb nutrients, removes toxins from the blood, and produces blood proteins.
Liver cirrhosis is a type of liver disease, which is characterized by scarring (fibrosis) in the liver. The liver is a very unique organ due to its ability to regenerate itself after injuries. As the liver repairs itself after injuries, scar tissue will form. Over time, the build-up of scar tissues will block blood flow and prevent the liver from functioning properly.
The disease is comprised of 2 types:
- Compensated cirrhosis: For compensated cirrhosis, the liver has not suffered from too much damage, so it can still function properly.
- Decompensated cirrhosis: In this case, the liver has lost the ability to function normally.
What are the signs & symptoms of liver cirrhosis?
During the early stages, patients often exhibit no visible signs. However, as the disease progresses to its later stages, they may notice the following symptoms:
- Fatigue & difficulty in breathing;
- Bleeding/ bruising;
- Loss of appetite;
- Nausea & vomiting;
- Weight loss;
- Darker stools and urine;
- Itchy skin;
- Yellow skin & eyes (jaundice);
- Visible blood vessels in the skin;
- Palm redness;
- Swelling in the legs, feet, ankles;
- Fluid build-up in the abdomen (ascites);
- Loss of sex drive;
- Irregular periods that are unrelated to menopause (for women);
- Breast enlargement/ testicular atrophy (for men);
- Memory problem, insomnia and slurred speech (hepatic encephalopathy).
If you have any of the above-mentioned symptoms, it’s advisable that you contact the doctor immediately.
What are the causes of liver cirrhosis?
The most common causes of liver cirrhosis include:
- Hepatitis: Viral hepatitis (B, C, D) is the leading cause of cirrhosis. In addition, patients who suffer from autoimmune hepatitis are also at risk of the disease.
- Excessive, long-term alcohol consumption: Drinking too much alcohol for a long time will result in scarring in the liver.
- Obesity: Being overweight increases the risk of fatty liver disease and non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), which in turn may lead to liver cirrhosis.
In addition, the following conditions may also contribute to fibrosis:
- Fatty liver disease;
- Accumulation of toxic metals in the body (Hemochromatosis, Wilson’s disease);
- Cystic fibrosis;
- Galactosemia, which affects the process of sugar metabolism;
- Genetic digestive disorders;
- Destruction/ blockage of the bile ducts, which prevents digestive enzymes from entering the intestines;
- Reaction to medications (e.g: methotrexate, isoniazid).
How dangerous is Liver cirrhosis?
Liver cirrhosis is a very dangerous condition. Over time, the accumulation of scarred tissues will gradually cause the liver to malfunction, which then gives rise to various life-threatening complications. These include:
- Portal hypertension;
- Swelling in the legs (edema)/ abdomen (ascites)/ spleen (splenomegaly);
- Varices – swollen veins in the stomach/ esophagus;
- Serious bleeding;
- Bacterial peritonitis;
- Weight loss;
- High level of toxins in the blood and brain;
- Bone disease;
- Hepatopulmonary syndrome (HPS);
- Coagulation disorders;
- Liver cancer.
Generally, liver cirrhosis progress through 3 different stages: mild, moderate, and severe. As it advances to the next phase, the symptoms will get worse, and the patient’s survival rate will drop. According to Medical News Today, for every 100,000 people in the US, 12 die from cirrhosis.
Diagnosis & Treatment
How to diagnose liver cirrhosis
To detect liver cirrhosis, the doctor may request one or more of the following procedures:
- Blood tests. This is the main method of cirrhosis diagnosis. By conducting a blood test, the doctor will be able to look out for symptoms such as high levels of bilirubin, the availability of some liver enzymes, hepatitis viruses, etc.
- Imaging tests. Tests like MRI, CT scan and ultrasound can help the doctor find out if your liver has hardened/ stiffened.
- Biopsy. A biopsy may be recommended to evaluate your liver conditions.
Liver cirrhosis treatment
Depending on the cause and severity of cirrhosis, the optimal treatment method may vary.
- Medications. Some medications may aid in slowing down the disease’s progression, hence preventing further liver damage.
- Liver transplant. If the patient’s liver is damaged beyond repair, a liver transplant may be necessary to replace it with a new healthy one. However, this treatment requires the availability of donor organs – which is sometimes unaffordable.
- Stem cell therapy. Unlike the above-mentioned methods, stem cell treatment aims to regenerate the damaged liver. After being injected into the body, mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) can stimulate the growth of hepatocytes, hence restoring the liver’s functions.
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Cirrhosis – Symptoms and causes – Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cirrhosis/symptoms-causes/syc-20351487. Accessed on September 24, 2019.
Cirrhosis of the liver: Causes, symptoms, and treatments. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/172295.php. Accessed on September 24, 2019.
What Is Cirrhosis? http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/cirrhosis-liver#1. Accessed on September 24, 2019.
What is Cirrhosis of the Liver? Symptoms, Treatments, Causes & Stages. https://www.medicinenet.com/cirrhosis/article.htm. Accessed on September 24, 2019.
Cirrhosis. http://www.liverfoundation.org/abouttheliver/info/cirrhosis/. Accessed on September 24, 2019.
Liver cirrhosis. http://patients.gi.org/topics/liver-cirrhosis/. Accessed on September 24, 2019.