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Hepatic Encephalopathy

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Definition

Hepatic encephalopathy is a problem with the brain that is caused by liver disease. The problem may be temporary or permanent.

Liver
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Causes

A liver with disease cannot filter the harmful items in blood. These toxins build up in the blood, which reaches the brain and affects the brain’s ability to work properly.

Risk Factors

Factors that increase your chances of developing hepatic encephalopathy include:

  • Cirrhosis
  • Certain conditions that affect the levels of fluids and electrolytes such as hyponatremia and hyperkalemia
  • Kidney failure
  • Infections
  • Gastrointestinal bleeding
  • Certain medications such as sedatives and anti-epileptics
  • Constipation
  • Hepatitis—infectious or autoimmune

Symptoms

In the early stages, you may not notice any symptoms. As the condition progresses, symptoms may include:

  • Changes in behavior and personality
  • Shortened attention span
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Tiredness
  • Forgetfulness
  • Disorientation
  • Slurred speech
  • Uncontrolled movements, particularly a flapping tremor of the hands
  • Confusion
  • Loss of consciousness

If you have liver problems and any of the above symptoms, call your doctor right away.

Diagnosis

You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. The condition of your nervous system will also be assessed.

Your liver and kidney function may be assessed. This can be done with:

  • Liver function tests
  • Kidney function tests
  • Imaging tests of the liver

Your brain and nervous system may be assessed. This can be done with:

  • Images of the brain with MRI scan or CT scan
  • EEG to look at brain waves for evidence of encephalopathy and/or seizures
  • Lumbar puncture to look for other causes of the encephalopathy

Treatment

Hospitalization and Emergency Care

The initial treatment will focus on treating and trying to reverse the underlying problems. If possible, toxins in your blood will be removed or neutralized.

Medications

Medications may be used to:

  • Neutralize toxins in the intestine such as ammonia
  • Remove blood from the intestines
  • Reduce ammonia production by intestinal bacteria
  • Reduce the amount of ammonia producing bacteria
  • Treat the condition that started the encephalopathy
  • Reduce recurrence

Dietary Restrictions

Changes in your diet may be recommended. Tube feeding may be needed to supply nutrients, especially in the case of coma.

Transplantation

If this condition is due to liver failure, you may need a liver transplant .

Prevention

To help reduce your chance of getting this condition, take the following steps:

  • Get early treatment for liver problems.
  • If you have a disease such as cirrhosis, see your doctor regularly.
  • Follow your doctor's instructions regarding medication. Avoid overdosing.
  • Avoid being exposed to poisons or toxins.
  • Avoid excessive use of alcohol.
  • Do not use IV drugs.

Revision Information

  • Reviewer: Rimas Lukas, MD
  • Review Date: 02/2014 -
  • Update Date: 03/05/2014 -
  • National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse

    http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov

  • National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

    http://www.ninds.nih.gov

  • Canadian Liver Foundation

    http://www.liver.ca

  • Health Canada

    http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca

  • Bernuau J. Acute liver failure: avoidance of deleterious co-factors and early specific medical therapy for the liver are better than late intensive care for the brain (review). J Hepatol. 2004;41:152-155.

  • Butterworth RF. Role of circulating neurotoxins in the pathogenesis of hepatic encephalopathy: potential for improvement following their removal by liver assist devices. Liver Int. 2003;23(suppl 3):5-9. Review.

  • Hepatic encephalopathy. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated February 18, 2014. Accessed March 5, 2014.

  • Highleyman L. Hepatitis C. HCV Advocate website. Available at: http://www.hcvadvocate.org/hepatitis/hepC/hepatic%5Fencephalopathy.html. Published December 2002. Accessed February 17, 2014.

  • Juretschke L. Kernicterus: still a concern. Neonatal Netw. 2005;24:7-9.

  • Lizardi-Cervera J, Almeda P, Guevara L, et al. Hepatic encephalopathy: a review. Ann Hepatol. 2003;2:122-130. Review.

  • Toftengi F, Larsen F. Management of patients with fulminant hepatic failure and brain edema. Metab Brain Dis. 2004;19:207-214.

  • 4/2/2010 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: FDA approves new use of Xifaxan for patients with liver disease. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm206104.htm. Published March 24, 2010. Accessed February 17, 2014.