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Cirrhosis, also known as end-stage liver disease, refers to the impaired liver function that results from fibrosis, or liver scar tissue, due to the damage caused by liver disease.

There are many causes and forms of liver disease, some of which we will explore in this article, but each time your liver is injured by disease or another cause it will attempt to repair itself. This reparation process results in the formation of scar tissue which is not inherently bad.

What makes scar tissue on the liver harmful is when it reaches a level of presence that impedes the ability of the liver to perform its normal functions. What is even more concerning is that once the damage is done, it cannot simply be healed.

The damage is there to stay.

When this condition becomes advanced enough, it can be life-threatening.

However, if liver cirrhosis is caught and diagnosed early enough in its existence, then it is possible to limit further damage and reduce the connected possible health deficits.

Now that we’ve established that cirrhosis is quite serious, let’s present a clear guide to understanding the symptoms, an explanation of the causes of cirrhosis, and an exploration of the available treatments available for handling this liver problem.

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Symptoms of Cirrhosis

Unfortunately, symptoms of cirrhosis can be quite difficult to notice for the person suffering from it. Only when the damage is quite extensive will the patient notice at which point it is normally too late for the liver to recover.

When the condition is serious enough to the point where it is not reversible, there is a multitude of symptoms that one may experience.

Just five of them may include easily bleeding or bruising, swelling in the legs due to oedema, yellow discolouration in the skin and eyes known as jaundice, absence of periods for women, and loss of sex drive for men.

There are a host of other symptoms but the few listed above paint a picture of the seriousness with which this condition should be treated.

In other words, all precautions should be taken to ensure that one does not develop cirrhosis as the damage will cause extensive bodily harm with no real treatment available to reverse the damage.

Causes of Cirrhosis

Cirrhosis can be caused by a number of conditions but there are several lifestyle or other factors that can increase the likelihood of developing liver disease and the associated liver scarring.

These are called risk factors and the first one on the list is drinking too much alcohol. This is a direct risk factor for cirrhosis with excessive alcohol consumption causing significant liver damage.

Another culprit is being overweight. While simply being overweight does not cause excessive liver scarring, it does increase one’s risk of developing conditions that have the potential to result in cirrhosis.

One such weight-related disease is known as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and non-alcoholic steatohepatitis.

The last risk factor worth mentioning here is that of viral hepatitis. While not a sure-fire way to develop cirrhosis, viral hepatitis is one of the world’s leading causes of liver disease.

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Treatment of Cirrhosis

Prevention is better than cure, always, so it’s worth looking at a couple of preventive measures that can be taken to lower one’s risk of developing cirrhosis.

Ultimately, it comes down to looking after your liver which can be done in several ways:

  • Eat a healthy diet. Advice just about as old as modern medicine itself, a healthy diet is essential for a healthy body and, by obvious association, a healthy liver. In general, a plant-based diet should be followed with a high percentage of fruits and vegetables. Whole grains and lean sources of meat should be selected over simple sugars and fatty foods.
  • Reduce your risk of hepatitis. As mentioned earlier, hepatitis is a leading cause of liver disease. As such, all precautions should be taken to prevent contracting hepatitis.
  • Reduce alcohol consumption. If one already has cirrhosis, then alcohol should be avoided at all costs. Reducing one’s alcohol consumption, even when one does not have cirrhosis, is a wise choice with many parts of the body guaranteed a better chance at increased health and maintained optimal functioning.

Were one to develop cirrhosis, there are several viable treatment options which we will discuss below.

Generally, treatment depends on the causes of cirrhosis and the extent to which it has damaged one’s liver already.

Treatments seek to slow scar tissue progression while lowering the occurrence of, or eliminating entirely, the associated symptoms.

Underlying Cirrhosis Cause Treatment

This treatment is effective in the earlier stages of cirrhosis when the tissue scarring has not become too severe.

If alcohol is the chief cause of cirrhosis, then one’s doctor would recommend drastically reducing alcohol intake.

If the patient is unable to do this then the doctor may recommend a treatment program for alcohol addiction.

One of the jobs the liver performs in cleansing the blood is detoxifying it of alcohol. If cirrhosis is already present, then alcohol is toxic to the liver as it is unable to be processed.

When cirrhosis is caused by non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, patients have the potential to become healthier by losing weight and asserting back control of their blood sugar levels.

Lastly, medications that control other causes of cirrhosis and treat the symptoms of cirrhosis may be given to slow its progression.

Cirrhosis Complications and Treatment

As oedema is a common symptom of cirrhosis, a low-sodium diet and medication to prevent fluid build-up in the body may help control the swelling. If the fluid retention is severe, however, then procedures may be required to drain the fluid.

Hepatic encephalopathy is where reduced brain function results from severe liver disease. In this case, one’s doctor may prescribe medication to assist in reducing toxin build-up in the blood due to the large decrease in liver function.

Infections are another common complication that may arise due to liver cirrhosis. Doctors will prescribe antibiotics in this case along with a recommendation for vaccinations for pneumonia, hepatitis, and influenza.

Liver Transplant Surgery

Cirrhosis is one of the most common reasons for a liver transplant. This procedure is required when the liver stops functioning due to the severity of the condition.

It’s performed by replacing one’s liver with a healthy liver from a deceased donor or with a part of the liver from a living person.

This is the last resort and potential recipients require extensive testing to ascertain whether they are healthy enough to have a high likelihood of a good outcome. One of the many requirements of alcohol-induced cirrhosis patients is a lifelong commitment to alcohol abstinence.

Summary

Cirrhosis is a severe form of liver disease where tissue scarring has greatly impacted the normal functioning of the liver.

While the damage cannot be reversed, there are a number of preventive measures which can be taken to reduce the likelihood of developing cirrhosis such as reducing alcohol consumption, following a healthy diet, and avoiding infections.

In severe cases, liver transplants are currently the only way to replace a liver that can no longer function.

It is best to diagnose cirrhosis as early as possible so that measures can be taken to reduce the damage and increase the longevity of the liver.

If you would like to book an appointment with a gastrointestinal (GI) specialist or would simply like more information on a particular GI topic, don’t hesitate to use our online booking form or call Dr. Deetlefs at 021 551 8678.

 

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© Dr. Eduan Deetlefs, Registered Gastroenterologist, GI Doc Cape Town

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