What Is It?
Esophageal varices are extra, swollen veins that develop in the lining of the lower esophagus near the stomach. They are caused by liver disease and are similar to the varicose veins that some people have in their legs. These swollen veins can rupture and cause dangerous bleeding.
Esophageal varices almost always occur in people who have cirrhosis of the liver. Cirrhosis causes scarring of the liver, which slows the flow of blood through the liver. This causes blood to back up in the portal vein, the main vein that delivers blood from the stomach and intestines to the liver. This condition is called portal hypertension. The backup of blood forces extra blood vessels to form around the stomach and esophagus. These extra vessels are called esophageal varices. They usually have enlarged, irregularly shaped bulbous regions (varicosities) that are interrupted by narrower regions. Because the blood pressure inside the varices is higher than inside normal blood vessels, and the walls of the vessels are thin, they rupture easily and can bleed profusely.
Portal hypertension often does not cause any symptoms, and sometimes is discovered only when the varices bleed. When significant bleeding occurs, patients will vomit blood, often in large amounts. People with massive bleeding frequently feel dizzy, and may lose consciousness. Some people bleed in smaller amounts over a longer period of time, and they swallow the blood rather than vomit. Their stools may contain red or tarry-black blood. People with either type of bleeding from the esophagus usually also have symptoms of cirrhosis of the liver.
To diagnose esophageal varices, a doctor will use an instrument called an endoscope, a thin, flexible tube with a camera at its tip that is inserted through the mouth so the doctor can see the walls of the esophagus and search for the source of bleeding. Tiny instruments may be attached to the endoscope to provide treatment at the same time.
Bleeding from esophageal varices can stop on its own or with treatment. However, bleeding esophageal varices can be fatal, particularly in people with severe liver disease. Half or more of patients who survive episodes of bleeding from esophageal varices will have the problem return during the first one to two years. The risk of recurrence can be reduced with treatment.
The best way to prevent esophageal varices is to reduce your risk of cirrhosis. The main cause of cirrhosis is alcohol abuse. Patients with hepatitis B or hepatitis C also are at risk of developing cirrhosis. Intravenous drug use is a major risk factor for hepatitis B and C. Children, young teens and all health care workers and older adults at risk of hepatitis B should be vaccinated against the disease. There is no vaccine to prevent people from contracting hepatitis C.
If you have esophageal varices, treatment may be able to prevent bleeding. This treatment includes endoscopic banding or sclerotherapy (described in the Treatment section) to shrink the varices. Drugs to reduce portal blood pressure — such as propranolol (Inderal), nadolol (Corgard) and isosorbide mononitrate (Isordil, Sorbitrate) — also can be used alone or in combination with endoscopic techniques.
Emergency treatment for bleeding esophageal varices begins with blood and fluids given intravenously (into a vein) to compensate for blood loss. At the same time, intravenous drugs may be given to decrease blood flow to the intestine. Efforts are then made to stop the bleeding. Endoscopy often is done to identify the site of the bleeding.
If the bleeding is caused by ruptured esophageal varices, one of two endoscopic treatments may be used:
- Band ligation — A rubber band is used to tie off the bleeding portion of the vein.
- Sclerotherapy — A drug is injected into the bleeding vein, causing it to constrict (narrow). This slows the bleeding and allows a blood clot to form over the ruptured vessel.
Bleeding esophageal varices can result in significant blood loss and many units of blood may need to be transfused. Once the bleeding is controlled, treatment is done to try to prevent more bleeding in the future. In some cases, more band ligation procedures are done to try to get rid of the varices. For people with severe cirrhosis, however, shunting procedures are sometimes necessary. They include:
- Transjugular intrahepatic portal-systemic shunting (TIPS) — A catheter is threaded through a vein in the neck into the liver. The tip of the catheter holds a stent, a wire mesh tube used to prop open a vein or artery. Under X-ray guidance, the stent is placed within the liver to allow blood to flow more easily through the portal vein. This treatment reduces the excess pressure in the esophageal varices, and decreases the risk of bleeding in the future.
- Surgery — Rarely, patients need to have an operation to create a shunt to divert portal blood away from the liver into another vein. Like TIPS, this treatment reduces the pressure in the varices.
When To Call A Professional
Bleeding from esophageal varices can be life threatening. Patients can lose massive amounts of blood in a short time, causing extremely low blood pressure and shock. If you vomit blood or notice blood in your stool, you should always seek immediate medical attention, especially if you have cirrhosis or a history of alcohol abuse or chronic hepatitis.
At least 50 percent of people who survive bleeding esophageal varices are at risk of more bleeding during the next one to two years. The risk can be reduced by endoscopic and drug treatments.
Diseases and Conditions Center
All ArmMed Media material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.