Current management of esophageal varices

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Opinion statement

Acute variceal hemorrhage is the most lethal complication of cirrhosis. The reported mortality rate from a first episode of variceal hemorrhage is 17% to 57%. Management of varices can be categorized into three phases: 1) prevention of initial bleeding, 2) management of acute bleeding, and 3) prevention of rebleeding. Modalities for treatment include pharmacologic, endoscopic, and shunt therapy. For the prevention of first variceal hemorrhage, cirrhotic patients should undergo endoscopy to identify patients with large varices. Priority for screening for varices should be given to patients with low platelet count, splenomegaly, and advanced cirrhosis. Once large varices are identified, patients should be started on β-blocker therapy, which reduces the risk of bleeding by 50%. If pharmacologic therapy is not tolerated or contraindicated, endoscopic band ligation should be performed, and surveillance of varices should be performed every 6 months thereafter. Shunt procedures are not indicated due to their higher rates of complications compared with medical therapy. For the management of acute variceal hemorrhage, patients should be started on prophylactic intravenous antibiotics and intravenous octreotide. Endoscopy should be performed to diagnose and treat variceal hemorrhage. Band ligation appears to be as effective as sclerotherapy, but with less complications. If hemostasis is not achieved, balloon tamponade can be used as a bridge to definitive therapy, which in this case would be a transjugular intrahepatic portosystemic shunt (TIPS). If TIPS is unavailable, a surgical shunt is indicated. Once an episode of acute bleeding has been controlled, variceal eradication is best accomplished with repeat band ligation every 10 to 14 days until varices are obliterated. Prevention of recurrent bleeding can be achieved with β-blocker therapy. The addition of isosorbide mononitrate further reduces recurrent bleeding. This combination pharmacologic therapy has been shown to be superior to sclerotherapy and may be superior to band ligation. However, side effects of combination pharmacologic therapy may limit its effectiveness. Band ligation is preferred to sclerotherapy when considering endoscopic therapy due to less complications and lower cost. Surgical shunts should be used for prevention of rebleeding in patients who do not tolerate or are noncompliant with medical therapy and who have relatively preserved liver function. TIPS should be reserved for patients who have poor liver function and who have failed medical therapy.