Cirrhosis and Portal Hypertension
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What is cirrhosis and portal hypertension?
Cirrhosis is a form of liver disease. It occurs when cells of the liver become damaged and your body can’t repair them. As the liver cells die, scar tissue forms. A buildup of scar tissue prevents proper blood flow. A normal liver is able to filter wastes and toxins to get them out of your body. If scar tissue keeps blood from flowing through your liver, it can’t get filtered. This causes toxins and wastes to build up in your body.
Portal hypertension is a leading side effect of cirrhosis. Your body carries blood to your liver through a large blood vessel called the portal vein. Cirrhosis slows your blood flow and puts stress on the portal vein. This causes high blood pressure known as portal hypertension.
What are the symptoms of cirrhosis?
Cirrhosis is a condition that happens over time. You may not have any symptoms in the early stages. Contact your healthcare provider if you begin to notice the following symptoms or signs:
- Loss of appetite
- Unplanned weight loss
- Weakness and fatigue
- Jaundice (which is the yellowing of the skin and eyes)
- Dark brown urine
- Red palms
- Vomiting blood
- Menstrual problems (in women)
- Mental confusion, such as a hard time focusing or remembering
- Itchy skin
- Swelling or bloating in your abdomen, due to fluids collecting
CAUSES & RISK FACTORS
What causes cirrhosis?
There are three main causes of cirrhosis.
- Alcohol-related liver disease. Drinking too much alcohol can lead to cirrhosis. This includes long-term alcohol use and frequent binge drinking.
- Fatty liver disease. This occurs when too much fat builds up in your liver. People who are overweight or obese are more at risk for this disease. People with diabetes, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure also are at risk.
- Hepatitis B and C. These are viral infections you can contract.
Minor causes of cirrhosis include:
- Certain genetic diseases, such as Wilson disease or autoimmune hepatitis.
- Continued exposure to toxic chemicals.
- Infections caused by parasites.
- Continued use of certain medicines.
- Certain congenital heart defects or chronic heart failure
DIAGNOSIS & TESTS
How is cirrhosis and portal hypertension diagnosed?
To diagnose cirrhosis, your healthcare provider may begin with a physical exam. They may also review your symptoms, health history, and lifestyle. Tests may be needed to check your liver and confirm diagnosis. These include blood and imaging tests. Blood tests can detect hepatitis, abnormal enzyme levels, or abnormal blood cells. Imaging tests take pictures of your liver. In some cases, your healthcare provider may do a biopsy on your liver. This involves taking a sample of liver tissue to look at it in the lab.
If you have cirrhosis, your healthcare provider will likely check for portal hypertension. They may check your abdomen for extra fluid (ascites). Your healthcare provider may check for swelling or pressure in the blood vessels around your portal vein. They may perform other tests to diagnose portal hypertension. Your healthcare provider also may do an endoscopy (using a lighted camera scope to look at your digestive system).
Can cirrhosis be prevented or avoided?
Some people can make lifestyle changes to help prevent cirrhosis. These include drinking safe amounts of alcohol, maintaining a healthy diet, and protecting yourself from hepatitis. If you’re overweight or obese, talk to your healthcare provider about how to safely lose weight.
The goal for cirrhosis treatment is to relieve symptoms and prevent further damage. Treatment also can avoid or manage complications caused by cirrhosis. With this condition, blood can’t flow normally through the portal vein. The blood has to return to your heart through other blood vessels. Most often it goes through blood vessels in your stomach, esophagus, or intestines. These vessels then swell due to the increased amount of blood flowing through them. This puts pressure on the vessels and can cause them to burst. Bleeding from a broken blood vessel is serious and can be fatal.
Your healthcare provider may prescribe medicine to help prevent your blood vessels from bursting. These medicines have some side effects and may interact with other medicines. They’re not suitable for everyone. Your healthcare provider may prescribe medicine to lower your blood pressure if you have portal hypertension. If you have hepatitis, your healthcare provider will prescribe an antiviral medicine. You may need other medicines, depending on the cause of cirrhosis.
If medicine isn’t enough, you may need surgery. Surgery can decrease pressure by interrupting the blood flow in your blood vessels. The healthcare provider or surgeon will insert a long tube through your mouth to your stomach. Then, they will place rubber bands or hardened chemicals in the swollen blood vessels to block them off. Another type of procedure, called TIPS (transjugular intrahepatic portosystemic shunt), may be done in some cases.
People who have portal hypertension may need surgery to connect certain blood vessels. If a blood vessel bursts, you’ll need surgery to stop the bleeding and repair it.
If surgery doesn’t work or you have liver failure, you may need a liver transplant.
Living with cirrhosis and portal hypertension
There is no cure for cirrhosis. However, work with your healthcare provider on a treatment plan to manage symptoms and help prevent more damage.
You shouldn’t drink any alcohol as it continues to damage your liver.
Talk with your healthcare provider before taking any medicines. This includes antibiotics, birth control pills, and all over-the-counter medicines.
Take care of yourself. Ask your healthcare provider if you should follow a special diet. You may need to watch how much sugar and protein you eat. If you have swelling or are retaining fluid, avoid salt or sodium.
Your healthcare provider may recommend screening for liver cancer. If left untreated, cirrhosis can get worse and be life threatening. It can cause a coma, liver failure, or death.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Canadian Liver Foundation – Atlantic Canada Chapter
Toll Free 1-866-423-8538
For help to stop drinking alcohol
Alcoholics Anonymous at
To find a local meeting visit