PATHOGENESIS IN THE PRESENCE OF CIRRHOSIS
Ascites in patients with cirrhosis is the result of portal hypertension and renal salt and water retention. Similar mechanisms contribute to ascites formation in heart failure. Portal hypertension signifies elevation of the pressure within the portal vein. According to Ohm’s law, pressure is the product of resistance and flow. Increased hepatic resistance occurs by several mechanisms. First, the development of hepatic fibrosis, which defines cirrhosis, disrupts the normal architecture of the hepatic sinusoids and impedes normal blood flow through the liver. Second, activation of hepatic stellate cells, which mediate fibrogenesis, leads to smooth-muscle contraction and fibrosis. Finally, cirrhosis is associated with a decrease in endothelial nitric oxide synthetase (eNOS) production, which results in decreased nitric oxide production and increased intrahepatic vasoconstriction.
The development of cirrhosis is also associated with increased systemic circulating levels of nitric oxide (contrary to the decrease seen intrahepatically) as well as increased levels of vascular endothelial growth factor and tumor necrosis factor that result in splanchnic arterial vasodilation. Vasodilation of the splanchnic circulation results in pooling of blood and a decrease in the effective circulating volume, which is perceived by the kidneys as hypovolemia. Compensatory vasoconstriction via release of antidiuretic hormone ensues; the consequences are free water retention and activation of the sympathetic nervous system and the renin angiotensin aldosterone system, which lead in turn to renal sodium and water retention.
PATHOGENESIS IN THE ABSENCE OF CIRRHOSIS
Ascites in the absence of cirrhosis generally results from peritoneal carcinomatosis, peritoneal infection, or pancreatic disease. Peritoneal carcinomatosis can result from primary peritoneal malignancies such as mesothelioma or sarcoma, abdominal malignancies such as gastric or colonic adenocarcinoma, or metastatic disease from breast or lung carcinoma or melanoma (Fig. 59-2). The tumor cells lining the peritoneum produce a protein-rich fluid that contributes to the development of ascites. Fluid from the extracellular space is drawn into the peritoneum, further contributing to the development of ascites. Tuberculous peritonitis causes ascites via a similar mechanism; tubercles deposited on the peritoneum exude a proteinaceous fluid. Pancreatic ascites results from leakage of pancreatic enzymes into the peritoneum.
CT of a patient with peritoneal carcinomatosis (white arrow) and ascites (yellow arrow).
Cirrhosis accounts for 84% of cases of ascites. Cardiac ascites, peritoneal carcinomatosis, and “mixed” ascites resulting from cirrhosis and a second disease account for 10–15% of cases. Less common causes of ascites include massive hepatic metastasis, infection (tuberculosis, Chlamydia infection), pancreatitis, and renal disease (nephrotic syndrome). Rare causes of ascites include hypothyroidism and familial Mediterranean fever.
Once the presence of ascites has been confirmed, the etiology of the ascites is best determined by paracentesis, a bedside procedure in which a needle or small catheter is passed transcutaneously to extract ascitic fluid from the peritoneum. The lower quadrants are the most frequent sites for paracentesis. The left lower quadrant is preferred because of the greater depth of ascites and the thinner abdominal wall. Paracentesis is a safe procedure even in patients with coagulopathy; complications, including abdominal wall hematomas, hypotension, hepatorenal syndrome, and infection, are infrequent.
Once ascitic fluid has been extracted, its gross appearance should be examined. Turbid fluid can result from the presence of infection or tumor cells. White, milky fluid indicates a triglyceride level >200 mg/dL (and often >1000 mg/dL), which is the hallmark of chylous ascites. Chylous ascites results from lymphatic disruption that may occur with trauma, cirrhosis, tumor, tuberculosis, or certain congenital abnormalities. Dark brown fluid can reflect a high bilirubin concentration and indicates biliary tract perforation. Black fluid may indicate the presence of pancreatic necrosis or metastatic melanoma.
The ascitic fluid should be sent for measurement of albumin and total protein levels, cell and differential counts, and, if infection is suspected, Gram’s stain and culture, with inoculation into blood culture bottles at the patient’s bedside to maximize the yield. A serum albumin level should be measured simultaneously to permit calculation of the serum-ascites albumin gradient (SAAG).
The SAAG is useful for distinguishing ascites caused by portal hypertension from nonportal hypertensive ascites (Fig. 59-3). The SAAG reflects the pressure within the hepatic sinusoids and correlates with the hepatic venous pressure gradient. The SAAG is calculated by subtracting the ascitic albumin concentration from the serum albumin level and does not change with diuresis. A SAAG ≥1.1 g/dL reflects the presence of portal hypertension and indicates that the ascites is due to increased pressure in the hepatic sinusoids. According to Starling’s law, a high SAAG reflects the oncotic pressure that counterbalances the portal pressure. Possible causes include cirrhosis, cardiac ascites, hepatic vein thrombosis (Budd-Chiari syndrome), sinusoidal obstruction syndrome (veno-occlusive disease), or massive liver metastases. A SAAG <1.1 g/dL indicates that the ascites is not related to portal hypertension, as in tuberculous peritonitis, peritoneal carcinomatosis, or pancreatic ascites.
Algorithm for the diagnosis of ascites according to the serum-ascites albumin gradient (SAAG). IVC, inferior vena cava.
For high-SAAG (≥1.1) ascites, the ascitic protein level can provide further clues to the etiology (Fig. 59-3). An ascitic protein level of ≥2.5 g/dL indicates that the hepatic sinusoids are normal and are allowing passage of protein into the ascites, as occurs in cardiac ascites, early Budd-Chiari syndrome, or sinusoidal obstruction syndrome. An ascitic protein level <2.5 g/dL indicates that the hepatic sinusoids have been damaged and scarred and no longer allow passage of protein, as occurs with cirrhosis, late Budd-Chiari syndrome, or massive liver metastases. Pro-brain-type natriuretic peptide (BNP) is a natriuretic hormone released by the heart as a result of increased volume and ventricular wall stretch. High levels of BNP in serum occur in heart failure and may be useful in identifying heart failure as the cause of high-SAAG ascites.
Further tests are indicated only in specific clinical circumstances. When secondary peritonitis resulting from a perforated hollow viscus is suspected, ascitic glucose and lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) levels can be measured. In contrast to “spontaneous” bacterial peritonitis, which may complicate cirrhotic ascites (see “Complications,” below), secondary peritonitis is suggested by an ascitic glucose level <50 mg/dL, an ascitic LDH level higher than the serum LDH level, and the detection of multiple pathogens on ascitic fluid culture. When pancreatic ascites is suspected, the ascitic amylase level should be measured and is typically >1000 mg/dL. Cytology can be useful in the diagnosis of peritoneal carcinomatosis. At least 50 mL of fluid should be obtained and sent for immediate processing. Tuberculous peritonitis is typically associated with ascitic fluid lymphocytosis but can be difficult to diagnose by paracentesis. A smear for acid-fast bacilli has a diagnostic sensitivity of only 0 to 3%; a culture increases the sensitivity to 35–50%. In patients without cirrhosis, an elevated ascitic adenosine deaminase level has a sensitivity of >90% when a cut-off value of 30–45 U/L is used. When the cause of ascites remains uncertain, laparotomy or laparoscopy with peritoneal biopsies for histology and culture remains the gold standard.
The initial treatment for cirrhotic ascites is restriction of sodium intake to 2 g/d. When sodium restriction alone is inadequate to control ascites, oral diuretics—typically the combination of spironolactone and furosemide—are used. Spironolactone is an aldosterone antagonist that inhibits sodium resorption in the distal convoluted tubule of the kidney. Use of spironolactone may be limited by hyponatremia, hyperkalemia, and painful gynecomastia. If the gynecomastia is distressing, amiloride (5–40 mg/d) may be substituted for spironolactone. Furosemide is a loop diuretic that is generally combined with spironolactone in a ratio of 40:100; maximal daily doses of spironolactone and furosemide are 400 mg and 160 mg, respectively.
Refractory cirrhotic ascites is defined by the persistence of ascites despite sodium restriction and maximal (or maximally tolerated) diuretic use. Pharmacologic therapy for refractory ascites includes the addition of midodrine, an α1-adrenergic agonist, or clonidine, an α2-adrenergic agonist, to diuretic therapy. These agents act as vasoconstrictors, counteracting splanchnic vasodilation. Midodrine alone or in combination with clonidine improves systemic hemodynamics and control of ascites over that obtained with diuretics alone. Although β-adrenergic blocking agents (beta blockers) are often prescribed to prevent variceal hemorrhage in patients with cirrhosis, the use of beta blockers in patients with refractory ascites is associated with decreased survival rates.
When medical therapy alone is insufficient, refractory ascites can be managed by repeated large-volume paracentesis (LVP) or a transjugular intrahepatic peritoneal shunt (TIPS)—a radiologically placed portosystemic shunt that decompresses the hepatic sinusoids. Intravenous infusion of albumin accompanying LVP decreases the risk of “post-paracentesis circulatory dysfunction” and death. Patients undergoing LVP should receive IV albumin infusions of 6–8 g/L of ascitic fluid removed. TIPS placement is superior to LVP in reducing the reaccumulation of ascites but is associated with an increased frequency of hepatic encephalopathy, with no difference in mortality rates.
Malignant ascites does not respond to sodium restriction or diuretics. Patients must undergo serial LVPs, transcutaneous drainage catheter placement, or, rarely, creation of a peritoneovenous shunt (a shunt from the abdominal cavity to the vena cava).
Ascites caused by tuberculous peritonitis is treated with standard antituberculosis therapy. Noncirrhotic ascites of other causes is treated by correction of the precipitating condition.
Spontaneous bacterial peritonitis (SBP; Chap. 159) is a common and potentially lethal complication of cirrhotic ascites. Occasionally, SBP also complicates ascites caused by nephrotic syndrome, heart failure, acute hepatitis, and acute liver failure but is rare in malignant ascites. Patients with SBP generally note an increase in abdominal girth; however, abdominal tenderness is found in only 40% of patients, and rebound tenderness is uncommon. Patients may present with fever, nausea, vomiting, or the new onset of or exacerbation of preexisting hepatic encephalopathy.
SBP is defined by a polymorphonuclear neutrophil (PMN) count of ≥250/μL in the ascitic fluid. Cultures of ascitic fluid typically reveal one bacterial pathogen. The presence of multiple pathogens in the setting of an elevated ascitic PMN count suggests secondary peritonitis from a ruptured viscus or abscess (Chap. 159). The presence of multiple pathogens without an elevated PMN count suggests bowel perforation from the paracentesis needle. SBP is generally the result of enteric bacteria that have translocated across an edematous bowel wall. The most common pathogens are gram-negative rods, including Escherichia coli and Klebsiella, as well as streptococci and enterococci.
Treatment of SBP with an antibiotic such as IV cefotaxime is effective against gram-negative and gram-positive aerobes. A 5-day course of treatment is sufficient if the patient improves clinically. Nosocomial or health care–acquired SBP is frequently caused by multidrug-resistant bacteria, and initial antibiotic therapy should be guided by the local bacterial epidemiology.
Cirrhotic patients with a history of SBP, an ascitic fluid total protein concentration <1 g/dL, or active gastrointestinal bleeding should receive prophylactic antibiotics to prevent SBP; oral daily norfloxacin is commonly used. Diuresis increases the activity of ascitic fluid protein opsonins and may decrease the risk of SBP.
Hepatic hydrothorax occurs when ascites, often caused by cirrhosis, migrates via fenestrae in the diaphragm into the pleural space. This condition can result in shortness of breath, hypoxia, and infection. Treatment is similar to that for cirrhotic ascites and includes sodium restriction, diuretics, and, if needed, thoracentesis or TIPS placement. Chest tube placement should be avoided.