What is liver cirrhosis?
Cirrhosis is a late-stage liver disease that causes scar tissue to replace healthy tissue and prevents the liver from being able to function effectively.
There are many liver conditions and diseases that can cause inflammation and scarring that may lead to liver cirrhosis, including chronic alcoholism, hepatitis and fatty liver disease. When these conditions cause damage to the healthy cells in the liver, cells die and the liver becomes inflamed. Just like when a cut leaves a scar on the skin, damage to the liver leaves behind scar tissue when the body works to repair it.
This scar tissue then blocks blood flow and inhibits the liver’s ability to perform vital functions for our survival. These essential functions include filtering drugs, alcohol and toxins in our body, producing proteins, storing vitamins and minerals and producing bile to aid digestion.
Because liver cirrhosis inhibits these important functions, severe liver cirrhosis can be life-threatening. Early detection and intervention are very important in the management of liver cirrhosis.
Typically, the earlier stages of liver cirrhosis do not cause any symptoms or cause symptoms that are easily mistaken for the symptom of a different illness. This means it can be difficult to diagnose until the condition is severe. Symptoms include:
- Unexplained weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Edema (swelling)
- Abdominal pain
- Spider-like blood vessels and red spots on the skin
- Jaundice (a yellowish discolouration of the eyes and skin)
- Confusion, difficulty concentrating
- Easy bruising and bleeding
- Blood in stool
- Ascites (fluid build-up in the abdomen)
Liver cirrhosis may develop as a result of excessive alcohol consumption, but that is not the only cause. Any other conditions that damage the liver can cause cirrhosis, including:
- Hepatitis A, B, and C
- Autoimmune diseases that damage the liver, such as primary biliary cholangitis
- Prolonged exposure to toxins
- Some medications
- Iron buildup (haemochromatosis)
- Cystic fibrosis
- Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is the most common form of the chronic liver disease found in Australia. As you can see, there are many causes of liver cirrhosis, and not all of them are obvious. It is important to remain vigilant for the signs and symptoms of liver cirrhosis even if you do not regularly consume alcohol.
There is a range of potential risk factors for liver cirrhosis, and all of these factors increase your likelihood of developing liver cirrhosis:
- Long-term, excessive alcohol consumption
- Having diabetes
- Having hepatitis
- Have fatty liver disease
- Excess weight
There is currently no cure for liver cirrhosis, which means that treatment focuses on preventing the condition from worsening, as well as preventing it from occurring in the first place. There are also steps that can be taken to manage symptoms and complications of liver cirrhosis.
- Undergoing regular checkups to monitor the condition.
- Treating any underlying causes of liver damage, such as a chronic infection.
- Avoid alcohol, toxins or medications that place the liver under stress or worsen the condition.
- Diet and lifestyle modifications.
- Placement of TIPS (Transjugular intrahepatic portosystemic shunt) to address portal hypertension resulting from liver cirrhosis to support healthy blood flow.
A liver transplant might be considered as a possibility in severe cases of liver cirrhosis.
Liver cirrhosis can lead to complications in other parts of the body. These complications might be the first sign of liver cirrhosis for many patients. They include but are not limited to:
This complication is both severe and common. It occurs when high blood pressure develops in veins supplying blood to the liver. This is because the scarring in the liver slows blood flow, similar to a hose that has a bend in it. Some of the potential signs and symptoms of portal hypertension may include (but not limited to):
- Enlarged liver and spleen.
- Enlarged veins (varices) of the esophagus and stomach.
- Internal hemorrhoids.
- Weight loss from malnutrition.
- Fluid buildup in the belly (ascites)
- Kidney malfunction.
- Low platelets.
- Fluid on the lungs.
This is a swelling that occurs in the lower extremities and sometimes in the abdomen. Some of the potential signs and symptoms of edema may include (but not limited to):
- Swelling or puffiness of the tissue directly under your skin.
- Stretched or shiny skin.
- Skin that retains a dimple (pits), after being pressed for several seconds.
- Increased abdominal size.
Liver cirrhosis can make it difficult to utilise nutrients and minerals effectively. Some of the potential signs and symptoms of malnutirion may include (but not limited to):
- Reduced appetite.
- Lack of interest in food and drink.
- Feeling tired all the time.
- Feeling weaker.
- Wounds taking a long time to heal.
When your liver stops working efficiently, your body can experience a buildup of a waste product called bilirubin. This has a yellow colour and causes the skin and eyes to turn yellow.
Many potential complications can arise from liver cirrhosis, so it is always best to speak to a medical professional to identify and treat any potential complications.
How is liver cirrhosis tested for and measured?
Liver cirrhosis can be diagnosed by radiology tests such as a CT scan, ultrasound, or MRI. A needle biopsy may also be used to obtain a diagnosis.
At Moonee Valley Specialist Centre we offer a non-invasive and comprehensive liver scan that can detect liver cirrhosis. It uses an innovative device, FibroScan 502 Touch Device, which can inspect your liver for signs of scarring or fatty deposits. It is similar to an ultrasound and can measure the stiffness of your liver as well as the degree of steatosis (fat) in the liver.
After you have the scan, you will receive two scores. These are the CAP score, which measures the amount of fat in your liver, and the second is the fibrosis score, which measures how stiff your liver is – this indicates the amount of scarring that might be present. These scores provide your practitioner with an insight into the condition of your liver, which supports them to prepare the best plan of action for treatment.
It is key that liver cirrhosis is identified early. Scans such as this one can help to identify liver cirrhosis when it is in earlier stages, and its non-invasive method makes it easier to undertake than a biopsy. It can be performed in as little as 10 minutes.
These liver scans do not require a referral from your doctor and take just 10 minutes. If you would like to learn more about this scan, call us on (03) 9372 0372 and we will be happy to answer your questions.
Learn more about this liver scan here.