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Bleeding esophageal varices

Definition

Bleeding esophageal varices are enlarged veins in the walls of the lower part of the esophagus (the tube that connects your throat to your stomach) that bleed.

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

Scarring (cirrhosis) of the liver is the most common cause of esophageal varices. This scarring reduces blood flowing through the liver. As a result, more blood flows through the veins of the esophagus.

This extra blood flow causes the veins in the esophagus to balloon outward. If these veins break open, they can bleed severely.

Any type of chronic liver disease can cause esophageal varices.

Varices can also occur in the upper part of the stomach.

Symptoms

People with chronic liver disease and esophageal varices may have no symptoms.

If there is only a small amount of bleeding, the only symptom may be dark or black streaks in the stools.

If larger amounts of bleeding occur, symptoms may include:

Signs and tests

Physical examination:

Tests to determine where the bleeding is coming from and detect active bleeding include:

  • Esophagogastroduodenoscopy (EGD--the use of a camera on a flexible tube to examine the upper gastrointestinal system)
  • Tube through the nose into the stomach (nasogastric tube) to look for signs of bleeding

Some doctors recommend EGD for patients who are newly diagnosed with mild to moderate cirrhosis. This test screens for esophageal varices and treats them before there is bleeding.

Treatment

The goal of treatment is to stop acute bleeding as soon as possible, and treat varices with medicines and medical procedures. Bleeding must be controlled quickly to prevent shock and death.

If massive bleeding occurs, the patient may be placed on a ventilator to protect the airways and prevent blood from going down into the lungs.

Treatments for acute bleeding:

  • A small lighted tube called an endoscope may be used. The health care provider may inject the varices directly with a clotting medicine, or place a rubber band around the bleeding veins.
  • A medication that tightens blood vessels (vasoconstriction) may be used. Examples include octreotide or vasopressin.
  • Rarely a tube may be inserted through the nose into the stomach and inflated with air. This produces pressure against the bleeding veins (balloon tamponade).

Once the bleeding is stopped, varices can be treated with medicines and medical procedures to prevent future bleeding:

  • Drugs called beta blockers, such as propranolol and nadolol, are used to reduce the risk of bleeding.
  • A rubber band can be placed around the bleeding veins during an EGD procedure.
  • Transjugular intrahepatic portosystemic shunt (TIPS) is a procedure to create new connections between two blood vessels in your liver. This can decrease pressure in the veins and prevent bleeding episodes from happening again.

Emergency surgery may be used (rarely) to treat patients if other therapy fails. Portocaval shunts or surgery to remove the esophagus are two treatment options, but these procedures are risky.

Patients with bleeding varices from liver disease may need more treatment for their liver disease, including a liver transplant.

Expectations (prognosis)

Bleeding often comes back without treatment. Bleeding esophageal varices are a serious complication of liver disease and have a poor outcome.

Complications

Calling your health care provider

Call your health care provider or go to an emergency room if you vomit blood or have black tarry stools.

Prevention

Treating the causes of liver disease may prevent bleeding. Preventive treatment of varices with medications such as beta blockers or with endoscopic banding may help prevent bleeding. Liver transplantation should be considered for some patients.

References

Garcia-Tsao G, Sanyal AJ, Grace ND, Carey WD; Practice Guidelines Committee of American Association for Study of Liver Diseases; Practice Parameters Committee of American College of Gastroenterology. Prevention and management of gastroesophageal varices and variceal hemorrhage in cirrhosis. Am J Gastroenterol. 2007;102:2086-2102.

Garcia-Tsao G. Cirrhosis and its sequelae. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 156.


Review Date: 2/18/2012
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.
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