Pathophysiology and treatment of ascites and the hepatorenal syndrome

P Gentilini, G Laffi
Baillière's Clinical Gastroenterology 1992, 6 (3): 581-607
Ascites indicates the accumulation of fluid in the peritoneal cavity, due to a wide range of causes. These causes can be classified according to the presence of portal hypertension, severe blood dyscrasia and peritoneal disease. Cirrhosis is the most frequent cause of ascites. The occurrence of ascites in cirrhosis is due to portal hypertension, which is responsible for the increase in hydrostatic pressure at the sinusoidal level and the alterations of splanchnic and systemic haemodynamics. These latter include increased splanchnic inflow, reduced systemic resistance and increased plasma volume and cardiac output. Portal hypertension also plays a major role in determining sodium retention, which occurs in the setting of increased RAA system and SNS activity. The mechanisms by which portal hypertension leads to the activation of antinatriuretic factors and sodium retention are not completely understood; three main hypotheses have been proposed to explain this relationship, namely the underfilling, the overflow and the peripheral arterial vasodilatation theories. In patients with cirrhosis and ascites, there is an overall activation of the renal prostaglandin system, which probably acts to maintain renal haemodynamics and GFR by counteracting the vasoconstricting effects of AII and noradrenaline on renal circulation. In advanced stages, ascites may become refractory to medical treatment and renal function shows a progressive impairment and eventually acute renal failure, the so-called HRS, due to a marked vasoconstriction of the renal arteries and the opening of the intrarenal-arteriovenous (A-V) shunts. In this condition, the reduced renal synthesis of vasodilating prostaglandins is probably of pathogenic importance. Treatment of ascites is usually based on bed rest, low-sodium diet and administration of aldosterone antagonists and loop diuretics. A sequential treatment of ascites based on the progressive addition of more potent drugs is the best way to relieve ascites while avoiding potentially dangerous side-effects. Patients who fail to respond to the above manoeuvres are said to have refractory ascites. Current treatment of this latter condition is mainly based on therapeutic paracentesis and the application of the LeVeen shunt, but long-term results are unsatisfactory.

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