In cirrhosis, liver cell damage slows down blood flow. This causes a backup of blood through the portal vein, a condition called portal hypertension. The effects of portal hypertension can be widespread and serious, including fluid buildup and bleeding.
Ascites and Fluid Buildup. Ascites is fluid buildup in the abdomen. It is uncomfortable and can reduce breathing function and urination. Ascites is usually caused by portal hypertension, but it can result from other conditions. Swelling can also occur in the arms, legs, and spleen. Although ascites itself is not fatal, it is a marker for severe progression. Once ascites occurs, only half of patients survive after 2 years. Some doctors refer to the phases of cirrhosis as preascitic and ascitic. Some doctors even believe that ascites signals the need for liver transplantation, particularly in alcoholic cirrhosis.
Variceal Bleeding. One of the most serious repercussions of portal hypertension is the development of varices, blood vessels that enlarge to provide an alternative pathway for blood diverted from the liver. In about two-thirds of patients, they form in esophagus. Varices pose a high risk for rupture and bleeding because of the following characteristics:
They are thin-walled.
They are often twisted.
They are subject to high pressure.
Internal bleeding from these varices (variceal bleeding) occurs in 20 - 30% of patients with cirrhosis. The risk of death from a single episode can reach 70%.
Bleeding commonly recurs within 2 weeks of the first episode, but after 6 weeks, the risk for recurrence is the same as for patients who have not had a bleeding event.
Factors that predict variceal bleeding include:
Factors that can increase the danger for a bleeding episode in high-risk individuals include the following:
Certain times of the day. Eating increases portal pressure, and there is a greater risk for bleeding in the evening. A lesser but still significant risk occurs in the early morning.
It is important for patients to be screened for esophageal varices and treated with preventive beta blockers if they show signs of risk. Between 30 - 40% of patients with cirrhosis have bleeding. The risk of dying from this complication is 20 - 35%. Some doctors recommend that all newly diagnosed patients be screened using endoscopy. Screening should also be considered for all previously diagnosed patients who have not been screened but would benefit from preventive treatments.
"The spleen normally acts as a filter to remove older red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets (small particles that are important for the clotting of blood.). The blood that drains from the spleen joins the blood in the portal vein from the intestines. As the pressure in the liver's portal vein rises in cirrhosis, it increasingly blocks the flow of blood from the spleen. The blood “backs-up” and accumulates in the spleen, and the spleen swells in size, a condition referred to as splenomegaly. Sometimes, the spleen is so swollen that it causes abdominal pain.
As the spleen enlarges, it filters out more and more of the blood cells and platelets until their numbers in the blood are reduced. Hypersplenism is the term used to describe this condition, and it is associated with a low red blood cell count (anemia), low white blood cell count (leucopenia), and/or a low platelet count (thrombocytopenia). The anemia can cause weakness, the leucopenia can lead to infections, and the thrombocytopenia can impair the clotting of blood and result in prolonged bleeding."