IM Board Review

Another complication of cirrhosis

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A 53-year-old Native American woman with a history of liver cirrhosis secondary to alcohol abuse presents to the emergency department after 2 days of diffuse abdominal pain and weakness. The pain was sudden in onset and has progressed relentlessly over the last day, reaching 9 on a scale of 10 in severity. Family members say that her oral intake has been decreased for the last 2 days, but she has had no fever, vomiting, change in bowel habit, blood in stool, or black stool. She has never undergone surgery, and has had one uncomplicated pregnancy.

Physical examination

Vital signs:

  • Blood pressure 82/57 mm Hg
  • Heart rate 96 beats per minute
  • Temperature 37.3°C (99.1°F)
  • Respiratory rate 16 per minute
  • Oxygen saturation 92% while receiving oxygen at 2 L/minute.

The patient is somnolent and has scleral icterus. Her cardiopulmonary examination is normal. Her abdomen is tense, distended, and diffusely tender. She has bilateral +2 pitting edema in her lower extremities. She is oriented to person only and is noted to have asterixis. Her baseline Model for End-stage Liver Disease score is 18 points on a scale of 6 (less ill) to 40 (gravely ill).

Laboratory studies:

  • Hemoglobin 9.8 g/dL (reference range 11.5–15.5)
  • Platelet count 100 × 109/L (150–400)
  • White blood cell count 9.9 × 109/L (3.7–11.0)
  • Serum creatinine 1.06 mg/dL (0.58–0.96)
  • Bilirubin 6.3 mg/dL (0.2–1.3)
  • International normalized ratio of the prothrombin time 2.15 (0.8–1.2)
  • Blood urea nitrogen 13 mg/dL (7–21)
  • Serum albumin 2.7 g/dL (3.9–4.9).

Intravenous fluid resuscitation is initiated but the patient remains hypotensive, and on repeat laboratory testing 4 hours later her hemoglobin level has dropped to 7.3 mg/dL.


1. Which of the following are likely causes of this patient’s presentation?

  • Splenic arterial aneurysm rupture
  • Spontaneous bacterial peritonitis
  • Variceal hemorrhage
  • Portal vein thrombosis
  • Abdominal aortic aneurysm rupture

Ruptured splenic artery aneurysm

Splenic artery aneurysms are the third most common intra-abdominal aneurysm, after those of the abdominal aorta and iliac artery.1 They are often asymptomatic and are being detected more frequently because of increased use of computed tomography (CT).2 Symptomatic splenic artery aneurysms may present with abdominal pain and have the potential to rupture, which can be life-threatening.3,4

This patient may have a ruptured splenic artery aneurysm, given her hemodynamic shock.

Spontaneous bacterial peritonitis

Ten percent to 20% of hospitalized patients with cirrhosis and ascites develop spontaneous bacterial peritonitis. Patients may present with ascites and abdominal pain, tenderness to palpation, fever, encephalopathy, or worsening liver and renal function.

Diagnostic paracentesis is paramount to delineate the cause of ascites; one should calculate the serum-ascites albumin gradient and obtain a cell count and culture of the ascitic fluid. The diagnosis of spontaneous bacterial peritonitis can be made if the ascitic fluid polymorphonuclear cell count is 0.25 × 109/L or higher, even if the ascitic fluid culture is negative.5,6 Simultaneous blood cultures should also be collected, as 50% of cases are associated with bacteremia.

The in-hospital mortality rate of an episode of spontaneous bacterial peritonitis has been reduced to 10% to 20% thanks to prompt diagnosis and empiric treatment with third-generation cephalosporins.7

Five percent of cases of infected ascites fluid are due to secondary bacterial peritonitis from a perforated viscus or a loculated abscess, which cannot be differentiated clinically from spontaneous bacterial peritonitis but can be diagnosed with CT.8

This patient may be presenting with septic shock secondary to either of these causes.

Variceal hemorrhage

Half of patients with cirrhosis have gastroesophageal varices due to portal hypertension. Endoscopic surveillance is warranted, as the risk of hemorrhage is 12% to 15% per year, and the mortality rate approaches 15% to 20% with each episode. Prompt resuscitation, diagnosis, and control of bleeding is paramount.

Esophagogastroduodenoscopy is used for both diagnosis and intervention. Short-term prophylactic use of antibiotics improves survival by preventing infections in the event bleeding recurs.9–11

Our patient may be presenting with hemodynamic shock from bleeding esophageal varices.

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Concussion: Evaluation and management

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