Cirrhosis is a serious degenerative disease that occurs when healthy cells in the liver are damaged and replaced by scar tissue, usually as a result of alcohol abuse or chronic hepatitis. As liver cells give way to tough scar tissue, the organ loses its ability to function properly. Severe damage can lead to liver failure and possibly death.
Cirrhosis poses another danger as well: Dense scarring slows the normal flow of blood through the liver, causing blood to find alternate pathways to return to the heart. This includes veins along the stomach and esophagus. The added pressure in these blood vessels, called varices, can cause them to enlarge and, in some cases, rupture. This is especially a problem for the blood vessels in the esophagus.
Every year, about 31,000 people in the U.S. die from cirrhosis, mainly due to alcoholic liver disease and chronic hepatitis C. The disease cannot be reversed or cured except, in some cases, through a liver transplant. It can often be slowed or halted, however, especially if the disease is detected in the early stages of development. Patients who think they might have cirrhosis should see a doctor without delay.
Cirrhosis is serious because of the importance of the organ it affects. The liver, weighing about three pounds and roughly the size of a football, is the largest of the body's internal organs. Among its many functions, the liver serves as an essential part of the digestive system by producing bile, which is stored in the gallbladder, then released into the small intestine, where it helps break down fatty food. The liver also helps maintain the proper composition of the blood by regulating the amounts of fat, protein, and sugar that enter the bloodstream.
As the body's primary blood filter, the liver works to detoxify alcohol, drugs, and other potentially harmful chemicals. Along with the spleen, the liver traps and disposes of worn-out red blood cells. And because it aids in the removal of bacteria and viruses from the blood, the liver is a vital component of the immune system. If your liver is not functioning properly, you are more susceptible to infection.
The liver is remarkably tolerant of disease and injury. Even after 70% of its mass has been destroyed or removed, the organ can still function, albeit with decreased effectiveness. If the conditions that caused the destruction have been removed or corrected, the liver usually can bounce back.
Although function can never be restored to parts of your liver that have turned to scar tissue, you can live a healthy life with the remaining portion if the disease is caught in time. However, there is a point of no return with cirrhosis. As more cells are replaced by scar tissue, fewer healthy cells are left to handle the liver's many tasks. Eventually, function problems arise and may remain. This is why it's important to identify the underlying causes as soon as possible and begin taking steps to eliminate them.