Critical management decisions in patients with acute liver failure

R Todd Stravitz
Chest 2008, 134 (5): 1092-1102
Few admissions to the ICU present a greater clinical challenge than the patient with acute liver failure (ALF), the syndrome of abrupt loss of liver function in a previously unaffected individual. Although advances in the intensive care management of patients with ALF have improved survival, the prognosis of ALF remains poor, with a 33% mortality rate and a 25% liver transplant rate in the United States. ALF adversely affects nearly every organ system, with most deaths occurring from sepsis and subsequent multiorgan system failure, and cerebral edema, resulting in intracranial hypertension (ICH) and brainstem herniation. Unfortunately, the optimal management of ALF remains poorly defined, and practices are often based on local experience and case reports rather than on randomized, controlled clinical trials. The paramount question in any patient presenting with ALF remains defining an etiology, since specific antidotes can save lives and spare the liver. This article will consider recent advances in the assignment of an etiology, the administration of etiology-specific treatment to abate the liver injury, and the management of complications (eg, infection, cerebral edema, and the bleeding diathesis) in patients with ALF. New data on the administration of N-acetylcysteine to patients with non-acetaminophen ALF, the treatment of ICH, and assessment of the need for liver transplantation will also be presented.

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