Conditions & Treatments

Chronic Liver Disease / Cirrhosis

Chronic liver disease is marked by the gradual destruction of liver tissue over time. Several liver diseases fall under this category, including cirrhosis of the liver and fibrosis of the liver.

Chronic Liver Disease/Cirrhosis

What is chronic liver disease?

Chronic liver disease is marked by the gradual destruction of liver tissue over time. Several liver diseases fall under this category:

  • Cirrhosis of the liver

  • Fibrosis of the liver

What is cirrhosis of the liver?

Cirrhosis is the 12th leading cause of death in the United States, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Because of chronic damage to the liver, scar tissue slowly replaces normal functioning liver tissue, progressively diminishing blood flow through the liver. As the normal liver tissue is lost, nutrients, hormones, drugs, and poisons are not processed effectively by the liver. In addition, protein production and other substances produced by the liver are inhibited.

What are the symptoms of cirrhosis?

Symptoms of cirrhosis vary, depending on severity of the condition. Mild cirrhosis may not cause any symptoms at all. The following are the most common symptoms of cirrhosis. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Abnormal nerve function

  • Ascites (fluid buildup in the abdominal cavity)

  • Breast enlargement in men

  • Vomiting blood

  • Curling of fingers (Dupuytren's contracture of the palms)

  • Gallstones

  • Hair loss

  • Itching

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)

  • Kidney failure

  • Liver encephalopathy

  • Muscle loss

  • Poor appetite

  • Portal hypertension

  • Redness of palms

  • Salivary gland enlargement in cheeks

  • Shrinking of testes

  • Spider-like veins in the skin

  • Weakness

  • Weight loss

The symptoms of cirrhosis may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.

What causes cirrhosis?

The most common cause of cirrhosis is alcohol abuse. Other causes include:

  • Hepatitis and other viruses

  • Use of certain drugs

  • Chemical exposure

  • Bile duct obstruction

  • Autoimmune diseases

  • Obstruction of outflow of blood from the liver (for example, Budd-Chiari syndrome)

  • Heart and blood vessel disturbances

  • Alpha1-antitrypsin deficiency

  • High blood galactose levels

  • High blood tyrosine levels at birth

  • Glycogen storage disease

  • Cystic fibrosis

  • Diabetes

  • Malnutrition

  • Hereditary accumulation of too much copper (Wilson disease) or iron (hemochromatosis)

How is cirrhosis diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, diagnostic procedures for cirrhosis may include:

  • Laboratory tests.

  • Liver function tests. A series of special blood tests that can determine if the liver is functioning properly.

  • Liver biopsy. A procedure in which tissue samples from the liver are removed (with a needle or during surgery) for examination under a microscope.

  • Cholangiography. X-ray examination of the bile ducts using an intravenous (IV) dye (contrast).

  • Computed tomography scan (CT or CAT scan). A diagnostic imaging procedure using a combination of X-rays and computer technology to produce horizontal, or axial, images (often called slices) of the body. A CT scan shows detailed images of any part of the body, including the bones, muscles, fat, and organs. CT scans are more detailed than general X-rays.

  • Ultrasound (also called sonography). A diagnostic imaging technique, which uses high-frequency sound waves and a computer to create images of blood vessels, tissues, and organs. Ultrasounds are used to view internal organs of the abdomen such as the liver, spleen, and kidneys and to assess blood flow through various vessels.

What is the treatment for cirrhosis?

Specific treatment for cirrhosis will be determined by your doctor based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history

  • Extent of the disease

  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the disease

  • Your opinion or preference

Cirrhosis is a progressive liver disease, and damage sustained to the liver is irreversible. However, with proper nutrition, avoidance of certain toxins (such as alcohol), vitamin supplementation, and management of cirrhosis complications, further liver damage can often be delayed or stopped. In severe cases of cirrhosis, liver transplantation may be considered.

What is fibrosis?

Fibrosis is the growth of scar tissue due to infection, inflammation, injury, or even healing. The overgrowth of scar tissue can occur in almost any organ. Fibrosis in the liver can inhibit the organ's proper functioning. Liver fibrosis is usually the result of cirrhosis.

Treatment Programs

Massachusetts General Hospital understands that a variety of factors influence patients' health care decisions. That's just one reason why we're dedicated to ensuring patients understand their diagnosis and treatment options. Because a single option might not serve all patients, we offer a wide range of coordinated treatments and related services across the hospital. Patients should consult with their primary care doctor or other qualified health care provider for medical advice and diagnosis information.

Select a treatment program for more information:

Digestive Healthcare Center

  • Liver Center
    Massachusetts General Hospital Liver Center specialists are authorities in the diagnosis and management of all forms of acute and chronic liver disease.

  • Pediatric Imaging
    The Pediatric Imaging Program at Massachusetts General Hospital Imaging specializes in ensuring the safety and comfort of child patients while providing the latest technology and the expertise of specialized pediatric radiologists.
  • Adult Medicine Imaging
    The Adult Medicine Imaging Program at Massachusetts General Hospital Imaging offers a wide range of diagnostic exams and minimally invasive, image-guided treatments, all provided using leading-edge equipment and interpreted by specialty-trained radiologists.
MassGeneral Hospital for Children

  • Pediatric Hepatobiliary and Pancreatic Program
    The Pediatric Hepatobiliary and Pancreatic Program at MassGeneral Hospital for Children diagnoses and treats infants, children and adolescents with diverse hepatic, biliary and pancreatic disorders.
  • Pediatric Transplant Surgery
    The Pediatric Transplant Program at MassGeneral Hospital for Children is a major referral center for organ transplants for children.
Transplant Center

  • Liver Transplant Program
    The Massachusetts General Hospital Transplant Center has performed more adult and pediatric liver transplants than any other center in New England, and has maintained some of the best graft and patient survivals in the country.

  • Liver and Hepatitis Program
    The Liver and Hepatitis Program at Massachusetts General Hospital provides expert consultation and state-of-the-art care for patients with acute and chronic liver conditions, including curative therapies for hepatitis C virus (HCV)

The following related clinical trials and research studies are currently seeking participants at Massachusetts General Hospital. Search for clinical trials and studies in another area of interest.

Innovative care at the Digestive Healthcare Center

Learn more about the latest treatment options for this condition at the Digestive Healthcare Center