Should my patient with suspected alcoholic hepatitis undergo liver biopsy?

Although a characteristic clinical history and biochemical pattern of liver injury can strongly suggest the diagnosis of alcoholic hepatitis (AH), a definitive diagnosis is confirmed with liver biopsy only. In fact, in 30% of patients clinically diagnosed as having AH, a liver biopsy may lead to an alternative diagnosis.1Understandably, many physicians are reluctant to proceed with biopsy in this fragile patient population given the associated risks, notably bleeding. For this reason, most patients with AH are clinically diagnosed without a liver biopsy. However, there are certain instances in which a biopsy can be helpful, including when:2

  • Diagnosis of AH is in doubt
  • Suspicion for another disease process that may be contributing in parallel to AH is high
  • Obtaining prognostic data or identification of advanced hepatic fibrosis or cirrhosis in AH is desired

Thus, liver biopsy findings may influence short- and long-term management in AH. For these reasons, the European Association for the Study of the Liver recommends consideration of a liver biopsy in patients with AH.3 To minimize the bleeding risk, the transjugular approach is preferred.

References

  1. Mookerjee RP, Lackner C, Stauber R, et al. The role of liver biopsy in the diagnosis and prognosis of patients with acute deterioration of alcoholic cirrhosis. J Hepatol 2011; 55:1103-1111 Link
  2. Altamirano J, Miquel R, Katoonizadeh A, et al. A histologic scoring system for prognosis of patients with alcoholic hepatitis. Gastroenterology 2014;146: 1231-1239. PDF
  3. European Association for the Study of Liver. EASL clinical practical guidelines: management of alcoholic liver disease. J Hepatol 2012; 57:399-420. PDF

Contributed by Jay Luther, MD, Gastrointestinal Unit, Mass General Hospital, Boston, MA.

Should my patient with suspected alcoholic hepatitis undergo liver biopsy?

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