Treatment of refractory ascites

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Opinion statement

In 1996, the International Ascites Club defined “refractory ascites” as ascites that cannot be mobilized by medical therapy or that recurs early after initial mobilization despite continued treatment. Of all patients with ascites, 5% to 10% will become refractory to medical therapy. Management of refractory ascites should attempt to control fluid accumulation, reduce the likelihood of developing complications such as spontaneous bacterial peritonitis (SBP) and the hepatorenal syndrome, and improve the patient’s nutritional status and overall well-being. Measures to control ascites accumulation include documenting medication and dietary compliance and eliminating potentially nephrotoxic agents that promote sodium retention. Large volume paracentesis is an effective first step in managing these patients and can be performed routinely in an outpatient setting. When more than 5 L of fluid are removed during a paracentesis, intravenous albumin should be infused to reduce the likelihood of the patient developing postparacentesis circulatory dysfunction. Transjugular intrahepatic portosystemic shunt (TIPS) placement effectively eliminates ascites; however, there is no convincing evidence that the shunt improves mortality. Furthermore, it is associated with frequent complications of encephalopathy and shunt malfunction. We feel TIPS should be reserved for patients requiring extremely frequent paracentesis, those who develop significant postparacentesis circulatory dysfunction, or those with hepatic hydrothorax. Patients who have evidence of SBP should be treated with antibiotics and intravenous albumin infusion. Patients who have had a previous episode of SBP or an ascitic fluid protein level of less than 1.0 should receive prophylactic antibiotics. Overall, the prognosis for patients with refractory ascites remains grim, and liver transplantation is the only definitive therapy. Appropriate candidates should be identified promptly and referred for transplant evaluation.