Cirrhosis of the liver is a life-threatening disease in which normal liver tissue is replaced by non-functioning scar tissue (fibrosis) and nodules which inhibit the normal flow of blood to the liver and impair normal liver function. Cirrhosis is the third most common cause of death in people ages 45-65, after heart disease and cancer.
As the body's largest internal organ, the liver performs numerous vital functions. It metabolizes food and drugs; removes toxins from the blood; stores vitamins, minerals, and sugars; converts food into energy or waste; produces proteins which help the blood clot; breaks down the body's waste products; and produces bile, which helps digest and absorb food and vitamins. Almost all the blood leaving the stomach and intestines flows into the liver before it travels elsewhere in the body. So any impairment of the liver's function can have important effects on the rest of the body.
Liver specialists at the Center for Advanced Digestive Care (CADC) of NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center are among the nation's best and have extensive expertise diagnosing and treating cirrhosis. We have a number of experts in the areas of hepatitis and primary biliary cirrhosis as well. The early diagnosis and treatment of cirrhosis is critical, because the liver damage it causes is irreversible.
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What Causes Cirrhosis of the Liver?
Liver cirrhosis is most often caused by alcohol abuse. Among the other causes are non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), hepatitis, use of certain drugs, bile duct obstruction, cystic fibrosis, and certain metabolic disorders.
Symptoms of Cirrhosis of the Liver
Mild cirrhosis may not cause any symptoms. When symptoms do develop, they may include:
- Weight loss
- Yellowing of the skin or eyes (jaundice)
- Persistent itching
- Spiderlike blood vessels in the skin
- Water retention
Diagnosis of Cirrhosis
To assess whether a patient has cirrhosis, doctors at the CADC take a full medical history, perform a physical examination, and perform a number of laboratory tests, including:
- Liver function tests
- Liver biopsy (examination of a small amount of liver tissue obtained through a long needle inserted through the skin and into the liver)
- Cholangiography (x-ray examination of the bile ducts using an intravenous dye)
- Computed tomography scan (CT or CAT scan)
- Ultrasound (also called sonography)
The liver disease team at the CADC has extensive experience employing the latest medications and techniques to manage cirrhosis proactively. They are also conducting basic and clinical research to address complications and to reduce the need for a liver transplant.
Prompt treatment of cirrhosis is vital to prevent further liver damage and to decrease the risk of complications. It is important that patients are honest with their doctors about all of the drugs they are taking (including over-the-counter pain relievers), dietary supplements, and any alcohol they consume.
If cirrhosis is caused by hepatitis, antiviral medications will be prescribed for hepatitis b and hepatitis c, or corticosteroids for autoimmune hepatitis. With proper nutrition, avoidance of certain toxins (such as alcohol and many pain medications), vitamin supplementation, and management of cirrhosis complications, further liver damage can often be delayed or stopped.
In severe cases of cirrhosis, liver transplantation may be needed. NewYork-Presbyterian's Center for Liver Disease and Transplantation offers a seamless integration of medical, surgical, radiological, and support services for patients requiring liver transplantation.