When we think about alcohol addiction and the effects of withdrawal, we often concentrate on the immediate mental and physical symptoms of the alcohol leaving the system after perhaps years or decades of drinking to excess.
What sometimes gets forgotten about are the long term conditions that recovering alcoholics can be left to cope with, which can cause a lot of distress and discomfort to them. One of these illnesses is called Cirrhosis (also known as alcoholic cirrhosis, or even alcoholic liver disease).
It is an illness that sometimes can go undetected without any real symptoms as such, until it is in an advanced stage. It occurs when the normal tissue of the liver starts to become replaced with scar tissue. This is a process that happens over a long time frame, meaning that in some cases the symptoms of cirrhosis are not picked up until the disease is in an advanced stage and can be more complex to treat.
In someone who is alcoholic, the ability of the liver to break down the increased levels of alcohol that are ingested becomes compromised and over time this leads to more scarring. What happens then is that the scarred tissue blocks the flow of blood from the intestines through to the liver itself, leading to an increase in pressure of the veins that supply this area with blood.
As mentioned above, sometimes symptoms of cirrhosis are not always easy to spot, especially during the early stages of the disease when they could well be confused for other things. A checklist of concerns may run as follows:
· Weight loss
· Loss of appetite
· Nausea and sickness
· Itchy, flaky skin
· Jaundice, which is yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes
· Bleeding and bruising more easily, for instance when you brush your teeth, or if you cut or knock yourself
· Hair loss
· Feeling constantly hot or cold, shivering attacks
· Pain or discomfort around the liver area especially when touched
· Fatigue and weakness
· Oedema, which is a build up of fluid in the extremeties
· Ascites, a painful build up of fluid in the abdominal area
Cirrhosis symptoms that occur in the latter stages of the illness include vomiting blood, or issues with passing blood in bowel motions. This happens when the liver becomes so scarred that blood cannot flow through it at all, which puts pressure on the vein that carries blood from the intestine to the liver. Pressure increases because of this and results in the smaller veins having to work harder, they can then burst, which causes problems with the stomach and bowel.
If it’s suspected that the symptoms you present with relate to cirrhosis, then your Doctor will perhaps carry out a physical examination to assess the liver and see whether or not it is swollen.
The next stage would be a blood test, which would assess the function of the liver and whether or not there is any damage to it. The test which is given will look for levels of two different enzymes, one called ALT (alanine transaminase) and AST (aspartate aminotransferase). In someone who has alcoholic hepatitis, the levels of these two chemicals will be raised or raised significantly. Blood tests will also look to see if viral hepatitis is present or whether there is too much iron and copper in the bloodstream.
You may then be sent for some imaging tests, which can take a further in-depth look at the liver. These might include an MRI or CT scan. They will highlight whereabouts any scarring has occurred and how minor or major it is.
Sometimes, a needle biopsy of the liver will be ordered as well. Under a local anaesthetic, a small amount of cells from the liver will be taken away for further analysis and to detect whether or cirrhosis of the liver is present.
Sadly, at the present moment in time, cirrhosis can’t be cured. It can be managed, however, and managed well. This does depend on how advanced it is, of course.
There are different stages of cirrhosis and they are classified using something called the Child-Pugh Scale. It has a grading of A, B or C, in which A means the patient has a good chance of recovery and C meaning that there is little or no chance of getting better.
In recent years, another way of grading the illness has been used, commonly known as the Model For End Stage Liver Disease, this is useful to detect whether or not the patient may require an organ transplant due to acute liver failure.
The first thing anyone suffering from cirrhosis will be advised to do is to make some lifestyle changes, including seeking help for alcohol addiction or binge drinking. This is key to making sure the condition does not get any worse. Good nutrition will be encouraged, a vitamin rich eating plan that is easy to digest will be given. Secondly, a low sodium diet and perhaps water tablets will be prescribed which may help to reduce some of the inflammation and fluid retention in the body. Sometimes, because sufferers of cirrhosis bleed more easily, treatment with Vitamin K and/or Plasma may be given if these episodes are frequent and severe. A complication of the illness is that some patients may develop problems with their brain function (encephalopathy), due to the fact that the liver cannot clean itself of toxins properly. Treatment in the form of antibiotics and laxatives to help clear the bowel may also be prescribed. In the most advanced stages of the illness, sometimes a liver transplant is the only option. This can be a tricky and difficult procedure but can often offer the suffer of cirrhosis the best chance of recovery and a new start in life.
Chrissy writes health articles for Wait a UK based web writing service