Although cirrhosis is believed by most people to be a disease, it is actually what happens to the liver because of a diseaseThe human liver weighs a little over two pounds and is by far the largest internal organ inside the human body.  The location of the liver is on the top right side of the abdomen, and slightly below the rib cage.  When the liver is damaged by any disease that causes it to sustain permanent injury or scarring, this is called cirrhosis.

The formation of scar tissue will cause damage to the liver.  In turn, this causes the flow of blood to be severely blocked as it flows through the liver.  When the liver suffers a loss of tissue, this slows the way that the liver processes toxins, hormones, medications, and nutrients that are essential to the function of the human body.  This will also cause a substantial reduction in the production of proteins, bile, and vitamins that are normally produced by the liver.

Known as one of the top ten leading causes of death, cirrhosis kills over 25,000 people every year.  Cirrhosis also has a large impact in terms such as pain and suffering, and the cost of medical treatment can be staggering. 

Causes of Cirrhosis

Cirrhosis may be caused by many things.  Alcoholism is the leading cause of cirrhosis in the United StatesHepatitis type B, C, and D have also been known to cause cirrhosis.  Cirrhosis that is caused by liver damage may be a result of genetic diseases such as:

There are two genetic diseases that lead to liver damage and cirrhosis.  The first is known as Wilson's Disease which causes the liver, brain, kidney, and cornea to store too much copper.  The second disease is called Hemochromatosis.  This disease is when too much iron is absorbed by the body and the amount of iron that cannot be used by the body remains in the liver, pancreas, intestines and other organs.

Bile ducts transfer bile from the liver to the intestine to help in the digestion and break down of fat.  If there is a blockage in one of the bile ducts, this could lead to cirrhosis.  The bile ducts in an adult body may become irritated, blocked, or become scarred as a result of other diseases such as biliary cirrhosis.  This type of cirrhosis usually occurs when the bile ducts sustain damage during gallbladder surgery.

There are less common causes of cirrhosis such as:

Symptoms of Cirrhosis

Often times, people who have cirrhosis display very few symptoms at the onset.  There are two leading problems that cause the symptoms to surface;  these are a decrease in functioning liver cells, and distortion in the shape of the liver that is caused by scar tissue.  Other symptoms may include the following:

When liver function decreases, it will produce less protein.  This, in turn, may lead to edema and water accumulating on the abdomen.  When the proteins for blood clotting are decreased, it will cause the person to bruise easily and bleed.

The person may experience jaundice as the bile pigment passing from the liver into the intestines becomes blocked.  This usually occurs when the person is in the late stages of cirrhosis.  This may also cause the person to feel extreme itching as the bile is retained in the skin.  Many people who have been diagnosed with cirrhosis often have gallstones due to the fact that there is not enough bile in the gallbladder.

Cirrhosis will cause the liver to have problems removing toxins from the blood, causing a build up of toxins in the bloodstream.  When this occurs, the person could experience such side effects as:

People should look for early warning signs of toxic build up in the brain such as:

People who suffer from cirrhosis experience extreme pressure on the blood vessels in the liver.  In a normal liver, the flow of blood from the spleen and intestines moves through the portal vein of the liver.  However, in a liver that is affected by cirrhosis, the flow of blood is slower than normal, which causes pressure to build in the portal vein.  This is known as portal hypertension.  A side effect of this is an enlargement of the spleen.  When this occurs, the flow of blood through the intestines tries to bypass the liver by using newly formed vessels.  These newly formed vessels may become enlarged and are known as varices.  These varices are formed in the stomach and esophagus.  Although they are large vessels, the walls are extremely thin and under very high pressure.  If these vessels burst, it will lead to serious bleeding in the esophagus and upper part of the stomach.  When this occurs, the person must seek medical attention quickly to stop the bleeding or they could die.

Treatment for Cirrhosis

The primary goal in treating cirrhosis is to slow or stop its progress, reduce liver damage and complications of cirrhosis.  People who suffer from alcoholic cirrhosis are advised to stop the consumption of alcohol, which will help stop the progression of cirrhosis.  In people who suffer from hepatitis, the physician prescribes steroids or antibiotics to help reduce the injury to liver cells.

The physician may prescribe medication to assist with the symptoms that occur with cirrhosis such as itching.  Reducing the salt intake will help the person's edema and ascites.  To aid in the removal of excess body fluid, drugs called diuretics are prescribed.  This also helps in the reoccurrence of edema.  Proper diet and medication will usually help when a person with cirrhosis is suffering from loss of mental function.  For example, to reduce the toxins that are formed in the digestive tract, the person should decrease their protein intake.  To help absorb toxins and remove them from the body, laxatives are often prescribed. 

Along with liver failure, portal hypertension is one of the two largest problems linked to cirrhosis.  Physicians often prescribe blood pressure medications to treat portal hypertension.  If the person is experiencing bleeding in the stomach or esophagus, the physician will use a long flexible tube that is inserted through the mouth and esophagus to administer a sclerosing agent.  In extreme cases of cirrhosis, liver transplants may be the only option the person has for recovery.  The physician may choose to do another form of surgery that helps relieve the pressure on the portal veins that is know as portacaval shunt.

It is not uncommon for people with cirrhosis to live normal healthy lives for many years.  Even if complications arise, most often they can be treated.  As liver transplant techniques have become more advanced, the success rate of liver transplantation has increased greatly.

The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, 2001

Cir*rho"sis (?), n. [NL., fr. Gr. orange-colored: cf. F. cirrhose. So called from the yellowish appearance which the diseased liver often presents when cut.] Med.

A disease of the liver in which it usually becomes smaller in size and more dense and fibrous in consistence; hence sometimes applied to similar changes in other organs, caused by increase in the fibrous framework and decrease in the proper substance of the organ.


© Webster 1913.

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