Dennis Lee, MD
Dr. Lee was born in Shanghai, China, and received his college and medical training in the United States. He is fluent in English and three Chinese dialects. He graduated with chemistry departmental honors from Harvey Mudd College. He was appointed president of AOA society at UCLA School of Medicine. He underwent internal medicine residency and gastroenterology fellowship training at Cedars Sinai Medical Center.
In this Article
- What is cirrhosis?
- Why does cirrhosis cause problems?
- What are the signs and symptoms of cirrhosis?
- What are the complications of cirrhosis?
- What are the common causes of cirrhosis?
- How is cirrhosis diagnosed and evaluated?
- How is cirrhosis treated?
- What is new and in the future for cirrhosis?
- Cirrhosis At A Glance
- Find a local Gastroenterologist in your town
How is cirrhosis diagnosed and evaluated?
The single best test for diagnosing cirrhosis is biopsy of the liver. Liver biopsies, however, carry a small risk for serious complications, and, therefore, biopsy often is reserved for those patients in whom the diagnosis of the type of liver disease or the presence of cirrhosis is not clear. The possibility of cirrhosis may be suggested by the history, physical examination, or routine testing. If cirrhosis is present, other tests can be used to determine the severity of the cirrhosis and the presence of complications. Tests also may be used to diagnose the underlying disease that is causing the cirrhosis. The following are some examples of how doctors discover, diagnose and evaluate cirrhosis:
- In taking a patient's history, the physician may uncover a history of excessive and prolonged intake of alcohol, a history of intravenous drug abuse, or a history of hepatitis. These pieces of information suggest the possibility of liver disease and cirrhosis.
- Patients who are known to have chronic viral hepatitis B or C have a higher probability of having cirrhosis.
- Some patients with cirrhosis have enlarged livers and/or spleens. A doctor can often feel (palpate) the lower edge of an enlarged liver below the right rib cage and feel the tip of the enlarged spleen below the left rib cage. A cirrhotic liver also feels firmer and more irregular than a normal liver.
- Some patients with cirrhosis, particularly alcoholic cirrhosis, have small red spider-like markings (telangiectasias) on the skin, particularly on the chest, that are made up of enlarged, radiating blood vessels. These spider telangiectasias also can be seen in individuals without liver disease, however.
- Jaundice (yellowness of the skin and of the whites of the eyes due to elevated bilirubin in the blood) is common among patients with cirrhosis, but jaundice can occur in patients with liver diseases without cirrhosis and other conditions such as hemolysis (excessive break down of red blood cells).
- Swelling of the abdomen (ascites) and/or the lower extremities (edema) due to retention of fluid is common among patients with cirrhosis though other diseases can cause them commonly, e.g., congestive heart failure.
- Patients with abnormal copper deposits in their eyes or certain types of neurologic disease may have Wilson's disease, a genetic disease in which there is abnormal handling and accumulation of copper throughout the body, including the liver, that can lead to cirrhosis.
- Esophageal varices may be found unexpectedly during upper endoscopy (EGD), and they strongly suggesting cirrhosis.
- Computerized tomography (CT or CAT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans and ultrasound examinations of the abdomen done for reasons other than evaluating the possibility of liver disease may unexpectedly detect enlarged livers, abnormally nodular livers, enlarged spleens, and fluid in the abdomen that suggest cirrhosis.
- Advanced cirrhosis leads to a reduced level of albumin in the blood and reduced blood clotting factors due to the loss of the liver's ability to produce these proteins. Thus, reduced levels of albumin in the blood or abnormal bleeding suggest cirrhosis.
- Abnormal elevation of liver enzymes in the blood (such as ALT and AST) that are obtained routinely as part of yearly health examinations suggests inflammation or injury to the liver from many causes as well as cirrhosis.
- Patients with elevated levels of iron in their blood may have hemochromatosis, a genetic disease of the liver in which iron is handled abnormally and which leads to cirrhosis.
- Auto-antibodies (antinuclear antibody, anti-smooth muscle antibody and anti-mitochondrial antibody) sometimes are detected in the blood and may be a clue to the presence of autoimmune hepatitis or primary biliary cirrhosis, both of which can lead to cirrhosis.
- Liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma) may be detected by CT and MRI scans or ultrasound of the abdomen. Liver cancer most commonly develops in individuals with underlying cirrhosis.
- If there is an accumulation of fluid in the abdomen, a sample of the fluid can be removed using a long needle. The fluid then can be examined and tested. The results of testing may suggest the presence of cirrhosis as the cause of the fluid.
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