, Volume 68, Issue 16, pp 2303–2324

Variceal Bleeding

Pharmacological Treatment and Prophylactic Strategies
Therapy In Practice

DOI: 10.2165/0003495-200868160-00004

Cite this article as:
Villanueva, C. & Balanzó, J. Drugs (2008) 68: 2303. doi:10.2165/0003495-200868160-00004


Oesophageal varices and ascites may develop when the hepatic venous pressure gradient (HVPG) increases above 10 mmHg, and variceal bleeding may occur when the HVPG rises above 12 mmHg. Pharmacological therapy of portal hypertension may prevent bleeding by reducing the HVPG below 12 mmHg. Even if this threshold level is not reached, the risk of bleeding decreases markedly with reductions in HVPG that are >20% from baseline.

Endoscopic therapy is a local treatment that prevents bleeding by obliterating the varices, and has no effect on the pathophysiological mechanisms that lead to portal hypertension and variceal rupture. When used together, both pharmacological and endoscopic therapies may have an additive effect, which has been demonstrated in different clinical settings. In acute oesophageal variceal bleeding, vasoactive drugs (either terlipressin or somatostatin) should be started as soon as possible (before diagnostic endoscopy) and maintained for 2–5 days. The efficacy of pharmacotherapy is improved with the addition of emergency endoscopic therapy. Adding endoscopic variceal ligation (EVL) improves the efficacy and safety achieved with the combination of emergency sclerotherapy and vasoactive drugs. Antibacterial prophylaxis should be an integral part of therapy in acute bleeding.

To prevent rebleeding, both EVL and the combination of β-adrenoceptor antagonists (β-blockers) and isosorbide mononitrate (ISMN) may be a valid first-line choice. Adding β-blockers improves the efficacy of EVL alone. Haemodynamic responders to β-blockers with or without ISMN (i.e. those with a decrease in HVPG to <12 mmHg or by >20% of baseline) have a reduction in the risk of haemorrhage to below 10% of patients and, consequently, will not need further treatment, while rescue therapies should be provided to nonresponders. Transjugular intrahepatic portosystemic shunts are the recommended rescue therapy when EVL and/or β-blockers with or without ISMN fail. β-Blockers significantly reduce the risk of a first haemorrhage in patients with large varices and improve survival. Compared with β-blockers, EVL reduces the risk of first bleeding without any differences in mortality and should be offered to patients with large varices who have contraindications or an intolerance to β-blockers.

Copyright information

© Adis Data Information BV 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Gastrointestinal Bleeding Unit, Department of Gastroenterology, Servei de Patologia DigestivaHospital de la Santa Creu i Sant PauBarcelonaSpain
  2. 2.Centro de Investigación Biomédica en Red de Enfermedades Hepáticas y Digestivas (CIBEREHD)MadridSpain