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Cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver, can be caused by a variety of liver diseases and conditions. UT Southwestern Medical Center provides the most advanced diagnostic and treatment options for cirrhosis, with the goal of diagnosing it early so that damage and complications can be limited.

Leading the Way in Early Treatment of Cirrhosis

Cirrhosis is often a gradual condition in which healthy liver cells are replaced by scar tissue. This can result from any chronic liver disease and not just from excessive alcohol intake.

Over time, inflammation and scarring can damage the liver so it’s not able to perform its important metabolic and toxin-removal functions. As the liver loses function, complications can occur such as swelling, jaundice, confusion, kidney damage, internal bleeding, and liver cancer.

UT Southwestern is a pioneer in liver disease research and patient care. Our liver specialists work with patients to identify and treat underlying liver conditions early, so in some cases cirrhosis can be avoided. If cirrhosis develops, successful treatment can often result in the liver remaining stable for years.

Symptoms and Risk Factors of Cirrhosis

Early in the condition, most people with cirrhosis don’t show any symptoms. Over time, as the liver loses more function, noticeable symptoms can occur, such as:

  • Fatigue
  • Swelling in the legs, feet, or ankles
  • Abdominal swelling and pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Itchy skin
  • Jaundice, or yellow discoloration of the skin or eyes
  • Confusion
  • Bleeding from varicose veins

Similar to other liver diseases, major risk factors of cirrhosis include drinking too much alcohol and obesity. Cirrhosis can also be caused by fatty liver disease as well as iron overload (hemochromatosis), copper overload, or immune conditions that affect the liver and bile ducts. Viral hepatitis can also predispose people to develop cirrhosis.

Diagnosing Cirrhosis

Cirrhosis is often first suspected after a routine blood test or checkup. If our team suspects cirrhosis, we’ll conduct a thorough physical examination. We then talk with patients about their medical and family history, including alcohol use and any medications being taken.

Generally, we will order blood tests to check for high levels of liver enzymes and overall liver function. Depending on these results, we might also order imaging tests, including:

  • Magnetic resonance elastography, which combines magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) with sound waves to detect hardening of the liver
  • MRI, magnet and radio waves that create detailed images to assess the liver
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan, X-ray technology that takes cross-sectional images to produce detailed 3D images of the liver

A biopsy (removal of a small sample of tissue) might also be taken, which can help our specialists determine the severity of cirrhosis.

Treating Cirrhosis

Treatment can vary, depending on the cause and severity of the cirrhosis. Patients are encouraged to lose weight and stop drinking – both of which can reduce liver inflammation and prevent cirrhosis from progressing. If the underlying cause is a liver disease such as hepatitis or primary biliary cirrhosis, medications to control those conditions can be helpful.

Our main goal is to prevent future complications. However, if a patient does have complications, we can facilitate liver transplantation. Our highly trained specialists use the most advanced surgical techniques and technologies, and our program has a three-year patient survival rate that surpasses the national average.

Regardless of the treatment, patients with cirrhosis, including those who are stable, will be seen regularly by our liver specialists to help monitor for cirrhosis-related complications, such as risk for internal bleeding and cancer.

Clinical Research

UT Southwestern has been involved in more than 40 clinical trials on liver diseases in the past 20 years. We are also part of the Acute Liver Failure Study Group, which is a clinical research network funded by the National Institutes of Health that works collaboratively to gather important prospective data and biosamples.

Learn more about current studies at UT Southwestern.

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Transplant Intake Coordinator: Helen Bankston, RN, B.S.N.