Portal Hypertension … Ascites and Splenomegaly

by Clint on March 15, 2011

There are several complications of Portal Hypertension(PH), including one of the most precarious side effects called Esophageal Varices (covered in a previous post), and of lesser degrees are the conditions of  ascites, and splenomegaly.  

Ascites takes place when excess fluid accumulates between the lining of the abdomen and abdominal organs.  This area is referred to as the  peritoneal cavity.

Low albumin levels in the blood as associated with portal hypertension is also a contributing factor.  Albumin is a protein made by the liver and is measured in the clear liquid portion of the blood by a special blood test.

Beyond portal hypertension there are other causes of ascites and they are cirrhosis, congestive heart failure, hepatitis, and cancers such as pancreatic, ovarian, or liver.  Kidney dialysis can also cause ascites.

Upon examination the obvious signs of ascites are a swollen belly (abdomen).  At that point evaluation tests on the liver may be performed which include urinalysis, and kidney function testing.

Common treatment includes diuretics (water pills), limiting salt in the diet, antibiotics (if infection is present), not to mention the avoidance of alcohol.  If the patient does not respond to the common treatments, then the placement of a tube in the abdomen may be used to drain large amounts of fluid from the area.  Lastly a transjugular intrahepatic portosystemic shunt (TIPS) is a radiology technique that reduces portal pressure and may be the most effective treatment for patients with ascites that are resistant to diuretics. The procedure is performed with the patient under conscious sedation or general anaesthesia.  A radiologist places a stint through the skin from the right jugular vein into the hepatic vein.  A connection is made between the portal and systemic circulations.   This treatment from what I have been reading seems to be the norm in the treatment of ascites for patients resistant to diuretics.

Now on to the topic of splenomegaly or simply put an enlarged spleen.     The spleen is an organ that is part of the lymph system.  The spleen’s role is to filter blood and to maintain healthy red and white blood cells and platelets.  To clarify, your spleen acts like a spongy filter for your blood. As blood circulates through your body, some of the cells (in the form of platelets and red blood cells) get damaged or worn down.  The function of the spleen is to remove these damaged cells from circulation. The spleen also acts as a storage location for extra red blood cells and platelets newly formed by your bone marrow.  There are several other causes to splenomegaly which include diseases of the blood, liver, cancers, and infections but in the case of PH sufferers the cause is clotting to the portal and splenic veins.

From a personal standpoint I have been fortunate enough to not have any pain as related to the enlargement of my spleen, however the possibility does exist from what I have read and been told.  When first diagnosed with portal vein thrombosis(PVT), the first gastroenterologist I had wanted to remove my spleen (splenectomy).  Being only a few months since the discovery of PVT in 2002, I felt uneasy about a possible splenectomy so I consulted with my haematologist who practised at another city hospital.  His exact words at that time were, “anyone can remove your spleen, but ‘he’ is not touching it – come and see me”!  Looking back I realize this was a good decision, and it may have saved me from added or more serious complications.  All being stated, a person can live without their spleen, but from what I have learned recently is that the spleen is very helpful in maintaining one’s immune system especially when the liver and artery function is compromised by a clot.   Without the spleen a person’s vulnerability to infection does increase, so it is important to get regular vaccinations to prevent bacteria such as influenza and pneumonia from taking its toll on one’s health.  I might also add that even though a person still has their spleen, but has portal hypertension, it is important to be inoculated against influenza and pneumonia as either can cause varices (if present) to rupture and bleed with serious consequences.  Like seniors and small children, our immune systems are compromised and health care professionals consider PH sufferers as being “high risk”.

Lastly I want to say that if you or a person you know is experiencing symptoms such as mentioned above, you are more than welcome to comment or post your questions below.  There is so much more one can learn, and each of us has a story… maybe you can shed some light on the subject for the benefit of someone else?

Until next time,

Clint

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