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Understanding Esophageal Varices

A disease that damages the esophagus, which is the muscular tube carrying food from mouth to stomach, esophageal varices is a life-threatening condition with a mortality rate of 40-70%. It is vital to understand the causes, symptoms and treatment of esophageal varices to avoid being succumbed to the killer disease.

Similar to varicose veins in legs, esophageal varices is characterised by enlarged bulbous regions on esophagus. In more than 95% of cases, esophageal varices is the result of cirrhosis of liver. Other than that, there are other causes also like blood clots in the veins, hepatitis and schistosomiasis which is a parasite infection that obstructs portal vein.

Excessive alcohol, hepatitis and liver damage leads to scarring of liver tissues which is known as ‘cirrhosis.’ This interrupts the blood flow throughout the liver causing increased blood pressure in the portal vein, which carries blood from the digestive system to the liver – this is known as ‘portal hypertension.’  Veins in esophagus being very fragile and close to the surface of the esophagus, gets ruptured easily with any rise in blood pressure in portal vein.

Esophageal varices is hardly noticeable until it starts bleeding. Usually, the blood is spotted first in vomit or stool. Patient may or may not experience severe abdominal pain, dizziness, unconsciousness, confusion, chest pain or shortness of breath. Excessive blood loss leads to shock and death.

If you observe these symptoms either with yourself or with someone close, rush for immediate medical aid. It is always a life-threatening emergency. More than half of the patients with esophageal varices eventually bleed. Doctors do endoscopy to diagnose the condition.

Once diagnosed, approach to the treatment of esophageal varices involves shrinking the enlarged veins, reducing the portal hypertension and controlling the bleeding. Surgery is recommended for severe cases of esophageal varices in which either a shunt is inserted in the liver or liver transplant is done to rectify the blood flow from liver to heart.

If you have been diagnosed with any liver disease, then to avoid any further complications – avoid drinking alcohol, maintain healthy weight, eat balanced diet with low-sodium content and stay from chemicals. Esophageal varices is a serious disease and complete recovery happens over a period of time, may be a year or two, only when the patient takes good care of his/her health.