The liver is the second most commonly transplanted major organ, after the kidney, so it is clear that liver disease is a common and serious problem.
It is important for liver transplant candidates and their families to understand the basic process involved with liver transplants, to appreciate some of the challenges and complications that face liver transplant recipients (people who receive livers), and to recognize symptoms that should alert recipients to seek medical help.
Liver disease, severe enough to require a liver transplant can occur from many causes. Doctors have developed various systems to determine the need for the surgery. Two commonly used methods are by specific disease process or a combination of laboratory abnormalities and clinical conditions that arise from the liver disease. Ultimately, the transplantation team takes into account the type of liver disease, the person’s blood test results, and the person’s health problems in order to determine who is a suitable candidate for transplantation.
A liver transplant may be recommended for people who have end-stage liver disease (ESLD), a serious, life-threatening liver dysfunction. ESLD may result from various conditions of the liver.
The most common liver disease for which transplants are done is cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is a long-term disease of the liver in which a fiber-like tissue covers the organ and prevents toxins and poisonous substances from being removed. Other diseases that may progress to ESLD include, but are not limited to, the following:
In adults, chronic active hepatitis and cirrhosis (from alcoholism, unknown cause, or biliary) are the most common diseases requiring transplantation. In children, and in adolescents younger than 18 years, the most common reason for liver transplantation is biliary atresia, which is an incomplete development of the bile duct.
Laboratory test values and clinical or health problems are used to determine a person’s eligibility for a liver transplant.
For certain clinical reasons, doctors may decide that a person needs a liver transplant.
These problems may become very difficult to control with medicines and can be a serious threat to life. A liver transplant may be the next step recommended by the doctor.
Symptoms of Liver Disease
People who have liver disease may have many of the following problems:
Exams & Tests
Extensive testing must be done before an individual can undergo a liver transplant. Because of the wide range of information necessary to determine eligibility for transplant, the evaluation process is carried out by a transplant team. The team includes a transplant surgeon, a transplant hepatologist (doctor specializing in the treatment of the liver), one or more transplant nurses, a social worker, and a psychiatrist or psychologist. Additional team members may include a dietician and anaesthesiologist.
Components of the transplant evaluation process include, but are not limited to, the following:
Psychological and social evaluation: Psychological and social issues involved in organ transplantation, such as stress, financial issues, and support by family and/or significant others are assessed. These issues can significantly impact the outcome of a transplant.
Blood tests: Blood tests are performed to help determine a good donor match, to assess the patient’s priority on the donor list, and to help improve the chances that the donor organ will not be rejected.
Diagnostic tests: Diagnostic tests may be performed to assess the liver as well as the patient’s overall health status. These tests may include X-rays, ultrasound procedures, liver biopsy, and dental examinations. Women may need a Pap test, gynaecology evaluation, and a mammogram.
The transplant team will consider all information from interviews, medical history, physical examination, and diagnostic tests in determining the patient’s eligibility for liver transplantation. Once eligibility is confirmed, the hunt for the donor begins.
If the patient is to receive a section of liver from a living family member (living-related transplant), the transplant may be performed at a planned time. The potential donor must have a compatible blood type and be in good health. A psychological test will be conducted to ensure the donor is comfortable with the decision.
The following pre-transplantation medications are usually prescribed:
Lactulose: It is important to continue taking this medication because it helps clear the toxins that cannot be cleared when the liver isn’t working well. With the doctor’s approval, the patient can adjust the lactulose dose to produce 2-3 soft bowel movements per day
Diuretics: These medications promote removal of excess fluid from various parts of the body, such as the abdomen and legs. The excess fluid is lost through urination, and the patient may do this frequently. Daily monitoring of weight is helpful in determining the ideal dose. Routine monitoring of blood test results is an important part of diuretic therapy because important substances are also removed in the urine and may need to be replenished.
Anti-ulcer medications: These medications are routinely given both before and after liver transplantation to prevent ulcers from forming in the stomach or bowels.
Beta-blockers: These medications reduce the chance of bleeding from the gastrointestinal (feeding) tract. They also lower blood pressure and heart rate. They sometimes make the patient feel tired.
Antibiotics: People with liver disease can be more susceptible to infections. The doctor may put the patient on long-term antibiotics if the patient gets repeated infections. The patient should call the doctor if feeling unwell or if he or she has symptoms of infection.
Before the Surgery
Liver transplantation requires a stay in a hospital. Procedures may vary depending on the patient’s condition.
During the Surgery
After the Surgery
After the surgery the patient may be taken to the recovery room before being taken to the intensive care unit (ICU) to be closely monitored for several days. Alternately, the patient may be taken directly to the ICU from the operating room. The patient will be connected to monitors that will constantly display ECG tracing, blood pressure, other pressure readings, breathing rate, and oxygen level. Liver transplant surgery requires an in-hospital stay of seven to 14 days, or longer.
The patient will most likely have a tube in the throat so that breathing can be assisted with a ventilator until he/she is stable enough to breathe on their own. The breathing tube may remain in place for a few hours up to several days, depending on the patient’s situation.
The patient may also have a thin plastic tube inserted through the nose into the stomach to remove air that the patient may swallow. The tube will be removed when bowels resume normal function. The patient will not be able to eat or drink until the tube is removed.
Blood samples will be taken frequently to monitor the status of the new liver, as well as other body functions, such as the kidneys, lungs, and blood system.
The patient may be put on special IV drips to help maintain blood pressure and heart function and to control any problems with bleeding. As the patient’s condition stabilizes, these drips will be gradually weaned down and turned off as tolerated.
Once the breathing and stomach tubes have been removed and the patient’s condition has stabilized, the patient may be given liquids to drink. The patient’s diet may be gradually advanced to more solid foods as tolerated.
Immunosuppression (anti-rejection) medications will be closely monitored to make sure the patient is receiving the optimum dose and the best combination of medications.
When the team of doctors feels the patient is ready, he/she will be moved from the ICU to a room on a regular nursing unit or transplant unit. The patient’s recovery will continue to progress here. Physical activity will be gradually increased as the patient gets out of bed and walks around for longer periods of time. Diet will be advanced to solid foods as tolerated.
Nurses, pharmacists, dieticians, physical therapists, and other members of the transplant team will teach the patient/family how to take care of the patient once discharged from the hospital.
Once at home, it will be important to keep the surgical area clean and dry. The doctor will give specific bathing instructions. The stitches or surgical staples will be removed during a follow-up visit, if they were not removed before leaving the hospital. The patient should not drive until the doctor says so. Other activity restrictions may apply.
Notify the doctor to report any of the following:
The doctor may give additional or alternate instructions after the procedure, depending on the patient’s particular situation. To allow the transplanted liver to survive in a new body, the patient will be given medications for the rest of his/her life to fight rejection. Each person may react differently to medications, and each transplant team has preferences for different medications. New anti-rejection medications are continually being developed and approved. Doctors tailor medication regimes to meet the needs of each individual patient. Usually several antirejection medications are given initially. The doses of these medications may change frequently, depending on the patient’s response. Because anti-rejection medications affect the immune system, people who receive a transplant will be at higher risk for infections. A balance must be maintained between preventing rejection and making the patient very susceptible to infection.
Some of the infections that transplant patients will be especially susceptible to include oral yeast infection (thrush), herpes, and respiratory viruses. The patient should avoid contact with crowds and anyone who has an infection for the first few months after your surgery.
The following are the most common symptoms of rejection. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include, but are not limited to, the following:
The symptoms of rejection may resemble other medical conditions or problems. The patient/family must consult the transplant team with any concerns they have. Frequent visits to and contact with the transplant team are essential.
Initially when the patient is in the intensive care unit, the medical team closely monitors the patient’s bodily functions, including the liver function, very carefully. Once the patient has been transferred to the floor nursing unit, the frequency of blood testing is decreased, the patient is allowed to eat, and physical therapy and activity are initiated to help regain muscle strength. Some of the medicines to prevent rejection are initially given intravenously or by vein, but others are given by mouth immediately and eventually all medications are given by mouth. During the first six weeks after liver transplantation, the patient will have to undergo frequent blood tests and other exams to monitor liver function and detect any evidence of rejection or infection in the new liver.
Yes. The transplantation team is the best resource to decide what type of transplant will suit your condition.
Yes, in general that is true, although every patient who has been involved with liver transplantation has often heard of that special case of someone who was able to stop the medication. Importantly, almost all patients who have to take these medicines long term can also undergo dose reduction as the body adjusts to the transplanted liver and the amount of medicine needed to control or prevent rejection is reduced.
Routine follow-up after the few months from the time of liver transplantation consists of monthly blood tests and doctor consultations. These tests include a check of blood pressure and a local exam by your physicians to look for and prevent complications of liver transplantation. The patients are usually asked to return to the hospital where the transplant was performed once or twice a year.
Individuals who have received a liver transplant need to avoid exposure to infections as their immune system is suppressed. Also, they need to report illnesses to their doctor immediately, especially fevers, and take over-the-counter medications or prescription medications only under their doctor’s direct supervision.
Liver transplant patients are encouraged to get out of bed as soon as they can after transplant and move and walk around in the hospital room in the first few days. Most patients can return to a normal or near-normal existence and participate in fairly vigorous physical exercise six to 12 months after successful liver transplant.
If a patient’s liver disease was caused by autoimmune hepatitis, hepatitis B or C viruses, then recurrence is possible. Hepatitis B right now only reoccurs in 5% or less of patients. Hepatitis C occurs in almost all patients and is progressive in maybe a quarter to half of patients in the first 5 to 10 years. For other types of liver disease, recurrence is less likely, but is still a possibility unless it was a genetic disease that was cured by the liver transplantation.
The newness of liver transplantation makes this question difficult to answer. There is every indication that those who are well one year after a liver transplant have an excellent chance at long term survival. Heart disease and cancer are the most common diseases that can result in death after transplant besides recurrent disease. Patients should not smoke or drink alcohol after liver transplantation.
Livers are donated, with the consent of the next of kin, from individuals who have had brain death. Brain death is usually the result of a head injury or a brain haemorrhage. When such a donor is identified, a network of skilled professionals will contact the transplant centers and make arrangements to retrieve whatever organs may be donated. This may involve a team of skilled professionals from transplant centers going to the donor hospital to remove the organs and return with them for the transplant operation.
No. At this time for liver transplantation, the only requirements are that the donor and recipient need to be approximately the same size and have compatible blood types. No other matching is necessary such as gender or age.
The decision to transplant a patient’s liver is made in consultation with all individuals involved in the patient’s care, including the patient, referring physician, and the patient’s family. The patient and family’s input is vital in this decision-making process; they must clearly understand the risks involved in proceeding to transplantation and the post-transplant care. In general, this means that a person has a poor chance of living in the next 1-2 years from their underlying liver disease.
Before liver transplantation, risks to the patient are mainly those who develop acute liver failure and it’s complications of bleeding, coma, kidney failure or progressive complications of chronic liver failure that might render the patient an unacceptable risk for surgery. This can also include intestinal bleeding, severe abdominal fluid accumulation, confusion as well as coma and severe infections.
With surgery, the risks are those that are common to all forms of major surgery, or involve technical difficulties in removing the diseased liver, involve implanting the donor liver, and/or involve consequences of being without liver function briefly. Immediately after the operation, risks include bleeding, poor function of the grafted liver, bile leaks, and infections. The patient is monitored carefully for several weeks after surgery for signs that the patient is rejecting the new liver as well. Rejection long-term becomes less and less common.
The answer to this question depends on many factors. The 1-year survival rate after liver transplantation is about 90% for patients living at home and about 60% for those who are critically ill at the time of the surgery. At 5 years, the survival rate is about 80%. Survival rates are improving with the use of better immunosuppressive medications and more experience with the procedure. The patient’s willingness to stick to the recommended post-transplantation plan is essential to a good outcome.
Recovery after liver transplantation depends in part on how ill the patient was prior to surgery. Most patients need to count on spending a few days in the hospital in the intensive care unit and another few days on the ward; about a minimum of 7-14 days in the hospital is common.
There are varying degrees of failure of the liver; even with imperfect function, patients can remain quite well. Occasionally, when circumstances and time permit, a patient’s transplanted liver that is failing can be replaced by a second or even a third transplant. With new advances in medicine, you may want to discuss with your doctor the possibility of a new liver support device that can postpone the need for transplantation or possibly improve the likelihood of a successful transplant. These devices are still in research but are often discussed with patients when they are admitted to the hospital.
All the medications used for rejection or to prevent rejection increase a patient’s susceptibility to infections and possibly, even though this is more remote, the development of tumours. Various medicines are used, and each has its own set of effects and side effects. Cortisone-like drugs, like prednisone, produce some fluid retention and puffiness of the face, and they carry a risk of worsening or bringing out diabetes and osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a loss of mineral from the bone.
Some drugs produce some tendency of high blood pressure as well as diabetes. Cyclosporine can cause growth of body hair as well as periodontal disease or dental disease in your mouth. The dose of cyclosporine must be very carefully regulated. Kidney damage can occur from cyclosporine or other drugs, but this can usually be avoided by monitoring the medications levels in the patient’s blood.
A large number of diseases are capable of decreasing or interfering with the liver’s function that’s sufficient to threaten the life of the patient. Most of these diseases are potentially treatable with liver transplantation. In adults, cirrhosis – which is a heavy accumulation of scar tissue due to the death of liver cells because of chronic viral hepatitis such as hepatitis C – is the most common disease for which liver transplantation is performed. In children, the disease most often treated by liver transplantation is biliary artesia, which is a failure of bile ducts to develop normally and drain bile from the liver.
Most people who develop cirrhosis of the liver due to excessive alcohol use do not need a liver transplant; they just need to stop drinking. Abstinence from alcohol and treatment of complications of alcohol induced cirrhosis usually allow them to live for a long period of time without a liver transplant. For patients with advanced liver disease, where prolonged abstinence and medical treatment fail to restore health and liver disease is progressive, liver transplantation may be considered. All patients in this setting must be alcohol free for at least 6 months before they can be listed for a liver transplant and have random alcohol and toxins screens as well.
Most cancers of the liver begin somewhere else in the body and spread to the liver. The most common example is colon cancer, but of course there are a number of other cancers that can spread (metastasize) to the liver. Typically these are not curable with a liver transplant, and thus, these patients are not transplant candidates. Liver tumours that start in the liver, such as hepatocellular carcinoma, that have not spread to other organs can be cured by transplantation. However, if the liver cancer has spread outside the liver, the patient is not a candidate for liver transplantation. Patients with a single tumour that is less than 5 cm in size or have no more than three tumours all less than 3 cm in size can be cured with liver transplantation and have excellent long term survival.
There are a number of effective medications that exist to treat a variety of liver diseases, while for other liver diseases medical treatment of complications is really all that can be done, especially in patients with true end-stage liver disease. Treatment of complications may be all that is required if the liver is not failing and liver transplantation may not be required in many cases. Otherwise, medical treatment delays, but does not eliminate, the patient’s need for a liver transplantation.
Yes and no. Medical treatment is likely to allow a patient’s prolonged survival with good quality of life, then transplantation would be reserved for the future. However, ideally liver transplant surgery is undertaken before the patient’s disease is at the terminal stage when he or she is too ill to withstand major surgery and will not survive until a suitable donor liver is available.
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