Cirrhosis affected about 2.8 million people and resulted in 1.3 million deaths in 2015. Of these deaths, alcohol caused 348,000, hepatitis C caused 326,000, and hepatitis B caused 371,000. In the United States, more men die of cirrhosis than women. The first known description of the condition is by Hippocrates in the fifth century BCE. The term "cirrhosis" was derived in 1819 from the Greek word "kirrhos", which describes the yellowish color of a diseased liver.
Signs and symptoms
Cirrhosis can take quite a long time to develop, and symptoms may be slow to emerge. Some early symptoms include tiredness, weakness, loss of appetite, weight loss, and nausea. People may also feel discomfort in the right upper abdomen around the liver.
As cirrhosis progresses, symptoms can include neurological changes. This can consist of cognitive impairments, confusion, memory loss, sleep disorders, and personality changes.
These features are a direct consequence of liver cells not functioning:
Spider angiomata or spider nevi happen when there is dilatation of vasculature beneath the skin surface. There is a central, red spot with reddish extensions that radiate outward. This creates a visual effect that resembles a spider. It occurs in about one-third of cases. The likely cause is an increase in estrogen. Cirrhosis causes a rise of estrogen due to increased conversion of androgens into estrogen.
Palmar erythema, a reddening of the palm below the thumb and little finger, is seen in about 23% of cirrhosis cases, and results from increased circulating estrogen levels.
Gynecomastia, or the increase of breast size in men, is caused by increased estradiol (a potent type of estrogen). This can occur in up to two-thirds of cases.
Caput medusae are dilated paraumbilical collateral veins due to portal hypertension. Blood from the portal venous system may be forced through the paraumbilical veins and ultimately to the abdominal wall veins. The created pattern resembles the head of Medusa, hence the name.
Hepatic encephalopathy (HE) occurs when ammonia and related substances build up in the blood. This build-up affects brain function when they are not cleared from the blood by the liver. Symptoms can include unresponsiveness, forgetfulness, trouble concentrating, changes in sleep habits, or psychosis. One classic physical examination finding is asterixis. This is the asynchronous flapping of outstretched, dorsiflexed hands.Fetor hepaticus is a musty breath odor resulting from increased dimethyl sulfide and is a feature of HE.
Sensitivity to medication can be caused by decreased metabolism of the active compounds
Cirrhosis has many possible causes, and more than one cause may be present. History taking is of importance in trying to determine the most likely cause. Globally, 57% of cirrhosis is attributable to either hepatitis B (30%) or hepatitis C (27%).Alcohol use disorder is another major cause, accounting for about 20–40% of the cases.
Alcoholic liver disease (ALD, or 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. Acetaldehyde is reactive and leads to the accumulation of other reactive products in the liver. People with ALD may also have concurrent alcoholic hepatitis. Associated symptoms are fever, hepatomegaly, jaundice, and anorexia.AST and ALT blood levels are both elevated, but at less than 300 IU/liter, with an AST:ALT ratio > 2.0, a value rarely seen in other liver diseases. In the United States, 40% of cirrhosis-related deaths are due to alcohol.
Chronic hepatitis C, an 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 damage can lead to cirrhosis. Among people with chronic hepatitis C, 20–30% develop cirrhosis. Cirrhosis caused by hepatitis C and alcoholic liver disease are the most common reasons for liver transplant. Both hepatitis C and hepatitis B–related cirrhosis can also be attributed with heroin addiction.
Chronic hepatitis B 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.
Autoimmune hepatitis is caused by an attack of the liver by lymphocytes. This causes inflammation and eventually scarring as well as cirrhosis. Findings include elevations in serum globulins, especially gamma globulins.
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 fully reversible.
The pathological hallmark of cirrhosis is the development of scar tissue that replaces normal tissue. This scar tissue blocks the portal flow of blood through the organ, raising the blood pressure and disturbing normal function. Research has shown the pivotal role of the stellate cell, that normally stores vitamin A, in the development of cirrhosis. Damage to the liver tissue from inflammation leads to the activation of stellate cells, which increases fibrosis through the production of myofibroblasts, and obstructs hepatic blood flow. In addition, stellate cells secrete TGF beta 1, which leads to a fibrotic response and proliferation of connective tissue. TGF-β1 have been implicated in the process of activating hepatic stellate cells (HSCs) with the magnitude of fibrosis being in proportion to increase in TGF β levels. ACTA2 is associated with TGF β pathway that enhances contractile properties of HSCs leading to fibrosis. Furthermore, HSCs secrete TIMP1 and TIMP2, naturally occurring inhibitors of matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs), which prevent MMPs from breaking down the fibrotic material in the extracellular matrix.
As this cascade of processes continues, fibrous tissue bands (septa) separate hepatocyte nodules, which eventually replace the entire liver architecture, leading to decreased blood flow throughout. The spleen becomes congested, and enlarged, resulting in its retention of platelets, which are needed for normal blood clotting. Portal hypertension is responsible for the most severe complications of cirrhosis.
The diagnosis of cirrhosis in an individual is based on multiple factors. Cirrhosis may be suspected from laboratory findings, physical exam, and the person's medical history. Imaging is generally obtained to evaluate the liver. A liver biopsy will confirm the diagnosis; however, is generally not required.
Other scans include CT of the abdomen and MRI. A CT scan is non-invasive and may be helpful in the diagnosis. Compared to the ultrasound, CT scans tend to be more expensive. MRI provides excellent evaluation; however, is a high expense.
The best predictors of cirrhosis are ascites, platelet count < 160,000/mm3, spider angiomata, and a Bonacini cirrhosis discriminant score greater than 7 (as the sum of scores for platelet count, ALT/AST ratio and INR as per table).
Thrombocytopenia, typically multifactorial, is due to alcoholic marrow suppression, sepsis, lack of folate, platelet sequestering in the spleen, and decreased thrombopoietin. However, this rarely results in a platelet count < 50,000/mL.
Aminotransferases AST and ALT are moderately elevated, with AST > ALT. However, normal aminotransferase levels do not preclude cirrhosis.
A recent study identified15 microbial biomarkers from the gut microbiota. These could potentially be used to discriminate patients with liver cirrhosis from healthy individuals.
The gold standard for diagnosis of cirrhosis is a liver biopsy. This is usually carried out as a fine-needle approach, through the skin (percutaneous), or internal jugular vein (transjugular). Endoscopic ultrasound-guided liver biopsy (EUS), using the percutaneous or transjugular route, has become a good alternative to use. EUS can target liver areas that are widely separated, and can deliver bi-lobar biopsies. A biopsy is not necessary if the clinical, laboratory, and radiologic data suggest cirrhosis. Furthermore, a small but significant risk of complications is associated with liver biopsy, and cirrhosis itself predisposes for complications caused by liver biopsy.
Once the biopsy is obtained, a pathologist will study the sample. Cirrhosis is defined by its 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 on 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.
No fibrosis, but mild zone 3 steatosis, in which collagen fibres (pink–red, arrow) are confined to portal tracts (P) (Van Gieson's stain)
Histopathology of steatohepatitis with mild fibrosis in the form of fibrous expansion (Van Gieson's stain)
Histopathology of steatohepatitis with moderate fibrosis, with thin fibrous bridges (Van Gieson's stain)
Histopathology of steatohepatitis with established cirrhosis, with thick bands of fibrosis (Van Gieson's stain)
Trichrome stain, showing cirrhosis as a nodular texture surrounded by fibrosis (wherein collagen is stained blue).
Macroscopically, the liver is initially enlarged, but with the progression of the disease, it becomes smaller. Its surface is irregular, the consistency is firm, and if associated with steatosis the color is yellow. Depending on the size of the nodules, there are three macroscopic types: micronodular, macronodular, and mixed cirrhosis. In the 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. Mixed cirrhosis consists of nodules of different sizes.
Micronodular cirrhosis, with diffuse areas of pallor
Child-Pugh Score in Relation to Liver Function, Prognosis and Post-op Mortality
Abdominal surgery post-operative mortality
Child-Pugh Class A
Good liver function
Child-Pugh Class B
Moderately impaired liver function
Child-Pugh Class C
Advanced liver dysfunction
The Child-Pugh score is a validated predictor of mortality after a major surgery. For example, Child class A patients have a 10% mortality rate and Child class B patients have a 30% mortality rate while Child class C patients have a 70–80% mortality rate after abdominal surgery. Elective surgery is usually reserved for those in Child class A patients. There is an increased risk for child class B individuals and they may require medical optimization. Overall, it is not recommended for Child class C patients to undergo elective surgery.
In the past, the Child-Pugh classification was used to determine people who were candidates for a liver transplant. Child-Pugh class B is usually an indication for evaluation for transplant. However, there were many issues when applying this score to liver transplant eligibility. Thus, the MELD score was created.
The Model for End-Stage Liver Disease (MELD) score was later developed and approved in 2002. It was approved by the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) as a way to determine the allocation of liver transplants to awaiting people in the United States. It is also used as a validated survival predictor of cirrhosis, alcoholic hepatitis, acute liver failure, and acute hepatitis. The variables included bilirubin, INR, creatinine, and dialysis frequency. In 2016, sodium was added to the variables and the score is often referred to as MELD-Na.
MELD-Plus is a further risk score to assess severity of chronic liver disease. It was developed in 2017 as a result of a collaboration between Massachusetts General Hospital and IBM. Nine variables were identified as effective predictors for 90-day mortality after a discharge from a cirrhosis-related hospital admission. The variables include all Model for End-Stage Liver Disease (MELD)'s components, as well as sodium, albumin, total cholesterol, white blood cell count, age, and length of stay.
Key prevention strategies for cirrhosis 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 about factors affecting cirrhosis risk and progression. However, many studies have provided increasing evidence for the protective effects of coffee consumption against the progression of liver disease. These effects are more noticeable in liver disease that is associated with alcohol use disorder. Coffee has antioxidant and antifibrotic effects. Caffeine may not be the important component; polyphenols may be more important. Drinking two or more cups of coffee a day is associated with improvements in the liver enzymesALT, AST, and GGT. Even in those with liver disease, coffee consumption can lower fibrosis and cirrhosis.
Generally, liver damage from cirrhosis cannot be reversed, but treatment can stop or delay further progression and reduce complications. A healthy diet is encouraged, as cirrhosis may be an energy-consuming process. A recommended diet consists of high-protein, high-fiber diet plus supplementation with branched-chain amino acids. Close follow-up is often necessary. Antibiotics are prescribed for infections, and various medications can help with itching. Laxatives, such as lactulose, decrease the risk of constipation. Carvedilol increases survival benefit for people with cirrhosis and portal hypertension.
Alcoholic cirrhosis caused by alcohol use disorder 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.
As of 2021, there are recent studies studying drugs to prevent cirrhosis caused by non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD or NASH). A drug called semaglutide was shown to provide greater NASH resolution versus placebo. No improvement in fibrosis was observed. A combination of cilofexor/firsocostat was studied in people with bridging fibrosis and cirrhosis. It was observed to have led to improvements in NASH activity with a potential antifibrotic effect. Lanifibranor is also shown to prevent worsening fibrosis.
Preventing further liver damage
Regardless of the underlying cause of cirrhosis, consumption of alcohol and other potentially damaging substances are discouraged. There is no evidence that supports the avoidance or dose reduction of paracetamol in people with compensated cirrhosis; it is thus considered a safe analgesic for said individuals.
Treating the cause of cirrhosis prevents further damage; for example, giving oral antivirals such as entecavir and tenofovir where cirrhosis is due to hepatitis B prevents progression of cirrhosis. Similarly, control of weight and diabetes prevents deterioration in cirrhosis due to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
People with cirrhosis or liver damage are often advised to avoid drugs that could further harm the liver. These include several drugs such as anti-depressants, certain antibiotics, and NSAIDs (like ibuprofen). These agents are hepatotoxic as they are metabolized by the liver. If a medication that harms the liver is still recommended by a doctor, the dosage can be adjusted to aim for minimal stress on the liver.
According to a 2018 systematic review based on studies that implemented 8 to 14 week-long exercise programs, there is currently insufficient scientific evidence regarding either the beneficial or harmful effects of physical exercise in people with cirrhosis on all-cause mortality, morbidity (including both serious and non-serious adverse events), health-related quality of life, exercise capacity and anthropomorphic measures. These conclusions were based on low to very low quality research, which imposes the need to develop further research with higher quality, especially to evaluate its effects on clinical outcomes.
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 risk factors in the recipient. In the United States, the MELD score is used to prioritize patients for transplantation. Transplantation necessitates the use of immune suppressants (ciclosporin or tacrolimus).
People with decompensated cirrhosis generally require admission to a hospital, with close monitoring of the fluid balance, mental status, and emphasis on adequate nutrition and medical treatment – often with diuretics, antibiotics, laxatives or enemas, thiamine and occasionally steroids, acetylcysteine and pentoxifylline. Administration of saline is avoided, as it would add to the already high total body sodium content that typically occurs in cirrhosis. Life expectancy without liver transplant is low, at most three years.
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. Despite proven benefit, people with cirrhosis are rarely referred to palliative care.
Cirrhosis is known to cause immune dysfunction in numerous ways. It impedes the immune system from working normally.
The AGA does not recommend for extensive pre-procedural testing, including repeated measurements of PT/INR or platelet count before patients with stable cirrhosis undergo common gastrointestinal procedures. Nor do they suggest the routine use of blood products, such as platelets, for bleeding prevention. Cirrhosis is stable when there are no changes in baseline abnormalities of coagulation lab values.
For patients with stable cirrhosis and low platelet count undergoing common low-risk procedures, the AGA does not recommend the routine use of thrombopoietin receptor agonists for bleeding prevention.
In hospitalized patients who meet standard guidelines for clot prevention, the AGA suggests standard prevention.
The AGA does not recommend in routine screening for portal vein thrombosis. If there is a portal vein thrombosis, the AGA suggests treatment by anticoagulation.
In the case of cirrhosis with atrial fibrillation, the AGA recommends using anticoagulation over no anticoagulation.
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.
Where salt restriction and the use of diuretics are ineffective then paracentesis may be the preferred option. This procedure requires the insertion of a plastic tube into the peritoneal cavity. Human serum albumin solution is usually given to prevent complications from the rapid volume reduction. In addition to being more rapid than diuretics, 4–5 liters of paracentesis is more successful in comparison to diuretic therapy.
Esophageal and gastric variceal bleeding
For portal hypertension, nonselective beta blockers such as propranolol or nadolol are commonly used to lower blood pressure over the portal system. In severe complications from portal hypertension, transjugular intrahepatic portosystemic shunting (TIPS) is occasionally indicated to relieve pressure on the portal vein. As this shunting can worsen hepatic 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. Balloon-occluded retrograde transvenous obliteration can be used to treat gastric variceal bleeding.
Hepatic encephalopathy is a potential complication of cirrhosis. It may lead to functional neurological impairment ranging from mild confusion to coma. Goal of treatment is reducing ammonia. This can be achieved by administering lactulose or lactitol to increase potassium. Hydration and nutritional support is also provided. Protein uptake is encouraged. The underlying cause may also need to be identified and treated. Causes include alcohol use, excess protein, gastrointestinal bleeding, infection, constipation, and vomiting/diarrhea. Drugs like benzodiazepines, diuretics, or narcotics can also precipitate hepatic encephalopathy. A low protein diet is recommended with gastrointestinal bleeding.Rifaximin is administered if mental state does not improve in 48 hours. Antibiotic treatment may need to be continued for at least three months. The grading or severity of hepatic encephalopathy is determined by mental status.
Cirrhosis can cause immune system dysfunction, leading to infection. Signs and symptoms of infection may be nonspecific and are more difficult to recognize (for example, worsening encephalopathy but no fever). Moreover, infections in cirrhosis are major triggers for other complications (ascites, variceal bleeding, hepatic encephalopathy, organ failures, death).
Each year, approximately one million deaths are due to complications of cirrhosis, making cirrhosis the 11th most common cause of death globally. 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.
The cause of cirrhosis can vary; alcohol and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease are main causes in western and industrialized countries, whereas viral hepatitis is the predominant cause in low and middle-income countries. Cirrhosis is more common in men than in women. The cost of cirrhosis in terms of human suffering, hospital costs, and lost productivity is high.
Globally, age-standardized disability-adjusted life year (DALY) rates have decreased from 1990 to 2017, with the values going from 656.4 years per 100,000 people to 510.7 years per 100,000 people. In males DALY rates have decreased from 903.1 years per 100,000 population in 1990, to 719.3 years per 100,000 population in 2017; in females the DALY rates have decreased from 415.5 years per 100,000 population in 1990, to 307.6 years per 100,000 population in 2017. However, globally the total number of DALYs have increased by 10.9 million from 1990 to 2017, reaching the value of 41.4 million DALYs.
The word "cirrhosis" is a neologism derived from Greek: κίρρωσις; kirrhosκιρρός, meaning "yellowish, tawny" (the orange-yellow colour of the diseased liver) and the suffix -osis, i.e. "condition" in medical terminology. While the clinical entity was known before, René Laennec gave it this name in an 1819 paper.
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