There is a lot of jargon in here, hang with me.
The gold standard for diagnosis is a liver biopsy. This procedure takes place in the hospital. While you are under a local anesthetic, a physician uses a needle with grabbers to remove a tiny sample from your liver. Once the biopsy is completed the patient must lay flat for 6-8 hours to confirm a lack of bleeding, then go home and do nothing strenuous for days.
The sample is studied by a pathologist to assess liver scarring (fibrosis). While liver biopsies are invasive and do have inherent dangers (excessive bleeding, infection, hypotension), they also have variable results, depending on who is reading the results. It is better to have two pathologists study the specimen but this isn’t always practical.
There are promising alternative tests. New tests can assess the severity of the fibrosis in individuals at high risk of developing liver cirrhosis (e.g., chronic alcoholism, chronic viral hepatitis). These tests include breath testing, blood tests, and imaging techniques.
- Ultrasound initially showed 94% accuracy, but that score has been downgraded. But in the US it is cheap and widely available
- Ultrasound with contrast media is about 79% accurate but contrast media is expensive and not always used in compromised livers
- Doppler checks the blood flow through the hepatic vein. This shows overlap of staging cirrhosis and therefore not a good choice
- CT Scans look at the whole abdomen so subtleties can be missed
- MRI has an accuracy of 80-89% but requires a high level of technique which is not always available clinically and is expensive
- Biomarkers can establish cirrhosis and non-cirrhosis but not grades of scarring
- Biomarkers: Indirect
- Fibrotest is useful in diagnosing and grading fibrosis. This test has established measurements and may be used in place of a liver biopsy for patients with Hepatitis C
- FIB4 uses a panel of biomarkers and can also be used instead of liver biopsy.
- Biomarkers: Direct
- HA (hyaluronic acid) normally occurs outside the circulatory system but can be evaluated by update in scarred vs normal livers. Scarred livers leave more HA behind while normal livers convert more to remove it from the blood.
- PIIINP and PIINP
All the tests listed above have varying degrees of accuracy but liver biopsy is still the standard for staging of scaring (fibrosis).1
The early stages of cirrhosis often produce no symptoms. As scar tissue replaces healthy cells, the liver begins to fail, and symptoms may become evident. The severity of symptoms depends on the extent of liver damage.
Because the liver is crucial for many metabolic activities, cirrhosis impacts a wide range of the body’s functions, including nutrient and hormone metabolism, blood clotting, and processing of ammonia and other toxic wastes. Many of the symptoms of cirrhosis are directly related to disruption of these functions. However, most of these symptoms can also be caused by other conditions, so it is important to consult with your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms, particularly if you have risk factors that increase your likelihood of developing cirrhosis.
Early symptoms of cirrhosis include:
- Fatigue and weakness (related to anemia and altered nutrient metabolism)
- Poor appetite
- Weight loss
- In men: A decrease in liver metabolism can contribute to: Impotence; Reduced testicle size; Enlarged, tender breasts; and/or Loss of interest in sex—due to altered liver metabolism of sex hormones
- Small, red spider-like blood vessels under the skin—caused by increased pressure in the tiny blood vessels due to liver congestion
- Increased sensitivity to drugs—due to reduced ability of the liver to inactivate them
Symptoms become more pronounced as cirrhosis progresses. Later symptoms, some of which are due to complications, include:
- Reddened or blotchy palms
- Sleep disturbances
- Fever and other signs of infection—due to altered immune function
- Peripheral neuropathy
- Frequent nosebleeds, skin bruising, or bleeding gums—resulting from decreased liver synthesis of clotting factors
- Ascites —water retention and swelling abdomen caused by obstructed blood flow through the liver and reduced synthesis of the protein albumin
- Bacterial peritonitis—infection of ascites causing abdominal pain and fever
- Itching—caused by deposition of bile products in the skin
- Jaundice —yellowing of the skin or eyes due to build-up of bile pigments (bilirubin)
- Vomiting blood—due to swollen veins in the esophagus that burst
- Encephalopathy and coma—mental changes, including forgetfulness, trouble concentrating, confusion, and agitation, caused by the build-up of ammonia in the blood
- Decreased urine output and dark urine—caused by kidney dysfunction or failure
- Liver cancer
This is an extensive list of symptoms but not complete. Each person is different. Remember that by taking care of your liver, some damage is reversible.2,3