Hepatic encephalopathy is a problem with the brain that is caused by liver disease. The brain problem may be temporary or permanent. People with a liver disease called
are most commonly affected.
Oxygen and Blood Flow to the Brain
If the liver is not working properly, toxins can build up in the blood. The toxic blood travels to the brain, affecting the brain's ability to function.
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A healthy liver filters out harmful items in the blood like toxins. A liver with disease can no longer filter these toxins. Certain toxins, like ammonia, build up in the blood. The blood then reaches the brain with the toxins. The toxins affect the brain’s ability to work properly.
These factors increase your chance of developing metabolic encephalopathy:
- Certain conditions that affect the levels of fluids and electrolytes (such as hyponatremia, hyperkalemia)
- Kidney failure
- Gastrointestinal bleeding
- Certain medicines (such as sedatives, anti-epileptics)
- Hepatitis (infectious or autoimmune)
Tell your doctor if you have any of these risk factors.
In the early stages, you may not notice any symptoms. As the condition progresses, symptoms may include:
- Changes in behavior and personality
- Shortened attention span
- Slurred speech
(particularly a flapping tremor of the hands)
- Asterixis (rapid momentary loss of tone in the muscles)
If you have liver problems and any of the above symptoms, call your doctor right away.
These problems can develop quickly. They may resolve when the underlying condition is reversed but immediate treatment is needed.
This condition is potentially very serious. It can quickly become an emergency. You may need to be hospitalized. Doctors will do an exam to assess the condition of your nervous system.
To assess your liver and kidneys your doctor may order:
- Liver function tests
- Kidney function tests
- Imaging tests of the liver (may be done)
Your doctor may also order tests to assess your brain and nervous system such as:
Images of the brain with
- EEG—looking at brain waves for evidence of encephalopathy and/or seizures.
- Lumbar puncture (spinal tap)—looking for other causes of the encephalopathy
The initial treatment will focus on treating and trying to reverse the underlying problems. If possible, toxins in your blood will be removed or neutralized.
Medications may be used to:
- Neutralize toxins
- Treat the condition causing encephalopathy
- Reduce recurrence
Your doctor may recommend changes in your diet.
Tube feeding may be needed to supply nutrients, especially in the case of coma.
To help reduce your chance of getting this condition, take the following steps:
- Get early treatment for liver problems.
- If you have a disease (such as cirrhosis), see your doctor regularly.
- Follow your doctor's instructions or product recommendations for any medication. Avoid overdosing.
- Avoid being exposed to poisons or toxins.
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Last reviewed September 2012 by Rimas Lukas, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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