My patient with cirrhosis now has an upper gastrointestinal bleed (UGIB) with hepatic encephalopathy (HE). What’s the connection between UGIB and HE?

Hepatic encephalopathy (HE) may be precipitated by a variety of factors including infection, hypovolemia, electrolyte imbalance (eg, hyponatremia, hypokalemia), metabolic alkalosis, sedatives, and of course UGIB. 1-3

Ammonia is often considered to play a central role in the the pathogenesis of HE, particularly when associated with UGIB. The ammoniagenic potential of UGIB is primarily attributed to the presence of hemoglobin protein in the intestinal tract. One-half of the ammoniagenesis originates from amino acid metabolism (mainly glutamine) in the mucosa of the small bowel, while the other half is due to the splitting of urea by the resident bacteria in the colon (eg, Proteus spp., Enterobacteriaceae, and anerobes).1,2

A large protein load in the GI tract, as occurs in UGIB, may result in hyperammonemia in patients with cirrhosis due to the limited capacity of the liver to convert ammonia to urea through the urea cycle as well as by the shunting of blood around hepatic sinusoids. Recent studies, however, also implicate the kidneys as an important source of ammonia in this setting, further compounding HE.3

It’s important to stress that ammonia is not likely to be the only mediator of HE. Enhanced production of cytokines due to infection or other inflammatory states, neurosteroids, endogenous benzodiazepines, and other bacterial byproducts may also play an important role in precipitating HE.2,4-6  So stay tuned!

Bonus pearl: Did you know that proinflammatory cytokines tumor necrosis factor-alpha and inerleukin-6 increase ammonia permeability across central nervous system-derived endothelial cells? 7



  1. Olde Damink SWM, Jalan R, Deutz NEP, et al. The kidney plays a major role in the hyperammonemia seen after simulated or actual GI bleeding in patients with cirrhosis. Hepatology 2003;37:1277-85.
  2. Frederick RT. Current concepts in the pathophysiology and management of hepatic encephalopathy. Gastroenterol Hepatol 2011;7:222-233.
  3. Tapper EB, Jiang ZG, Patwardhan VR. Refining the ammonia hypothesis: a physiology-driven approach to the treatment of hepatic encephalopathy. Mayo Clin Proc 2015;90:646-58.
  4. Shawcross DL, Davies NA, Williams R, et al. Systemic inflammatory response exacerbates the neuropsychological effects of induced hyperammonemia in cirrhosis. J Hepatol 2004;40:247-254.
  5. Shawcross DL, Sharifi Y, Canavan JB, et al. Infection and systemic inflammation, not ammonia, are associated with grade ¾ hepatic encephalopathy, but not mortality in controls. J Hepatol 2011;54:640-49.
  6. Shawcross D, Jalan R. The pathophysiologic basis of hepatic encephalopathy: central role for ammonia and inflammation.Cell Mol Life Sci 2005;62:2295-2304.
  7. Duchini A, Govindarajan S, Santucci M, et al. Effects of tumor necrosis factor-alpha and interleukin-6 on fluid-phase permeability and ammonia diffusion in CNS-derived endothelial cells. J Investig Med 1996;44:474-82.

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My patient with cirrhosis now has an upper gastrointestinal bleed (UGIB) with hepatic encephalopathy (HE). What’s the connection between UGIB and HE?

What common drugs may exacerbate urinary retention in my patient with spinal cord injury?

Anticholinergics (including tricyclic antidepressants-TCAs), selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), benzodiazepines, opioids, alpha-adrenergics, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are among the most common agents associated with urinary retention1.  This adverse reaction is particularly observed in patients with pre-existing hypoactive bladder, including those with spinal cord injury (SCI).  Unfortunately, patients with SCI also often require pharmacologic management of neuropathic pain with one or more of these agents (eg, TCAs, opioids, and NSAIDs).

The mechanism of urinary retention may vary depending on the agent. Anticholinergics (eg, TCAs, diphenhydramine) decrease detrusor muscle contraction via blockade of the parasympathetic pathway.1 Opiates may increase the sphincter tone of bladder via sympathetic stimulation, as well as decrease the sensation of bladder fullness by partial inhibition of the parasympathetic nerves that innervate the bladder.2 SSRIs increase external sphincter tone by inhibiting serotonin reuptake.3 Alpha-adrenergics (e.g. ephedrine) can lead to detrusor relaxation and sphincter contraction.3 NSAIDs are thought to inhibit prostaglandin-mediated detrusor contraction.5

Although most patients with SCI have urinary incontinence due to detrusor hyperactivity, some will have urinary retention due to detrusor hyporeflexia.6

Final Fun Fact: Did you know that medications may account for up to 10% of urinary retention episodes? 



  1. Verhamme KM, Sturkenboom MC, Stricker BH, Bosch R. Drug-induced urinary retention. Drug Saf 2008;31(5):373-88.
  2. Elsamra SE, Ellsworth P. Effects of analgesic and anesthetic medications on lower urinary tract function. Urologic Nursing 2012;32: 60-68.
  3. Thor KB. Serotonin and norepinephrine involvement in efferent pathways to the urethral rhabdosphincter: implications for treating stress urinary incontinence. Urology 2003; 62:3-9.
  4. Glidden RS, DiBona FJ. Urinary retention associated with ephedrine. J Pediatr 1977; 90:1013-4.
  5. Verhamme KM, Dieleman JP, Van Wijk MA, et al. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and increased risk of acute urinary retention. Arch Intern Med. 2005;165:1547–1551.
  6. Fowler CJ, O’Malley KJ. Investigation and management of neurogenic bladder dysfunction. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 2003;74(Suppl IV):iv27–iv31.


Contributed by Alice Choi, Medical Student, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA.


What common drugs may exacerbate urinary retention in my patient with spinal cord injury?

My patient with chronic alcoholism is showing signs of alcohol withdrawal even though his blood alcohol level (BAL) is still elevated. Is this possible?

Absolutely! For patients with chronic alcohol dependence, any acute decline in their BAL may precipitate withdrawal (1).

For example, if a patient typically drinks enough alcohol on a daily basis to sustain a BAL of 350 mg/dl, any significant drop in BAL (e.g. down to 125 mg/dl) may be associated with early signs of withdrawal such as nervousness, tachycardia and elevated blood pressure.

Another scenario that could lead to withdrawal symptoms despite an elevated BAL involves patients who use both alcohol and benzodiazepines chronically. In such patients— because the 2 substances have cross-reactive effects on the brain— a significant reduction in the dose or frequency of benzodiazepines may also lead to withdrawal despite an elevated BAL.  Also remember that symptoms of benzodiazepine withdrawal may begin within 24 h or up to 2 weeks following its cessation (2).

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  1. Roffman JL, Stern TA.  Alcohol withdrawal in the setting of elevated blood alcohol levels. Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry. 2006; 8(3):170-173
  2. Greenberg MI. Benzodiazepine withdrawal: potentially fatal, commonly missed, Emergency Medicine News 2001;23:18.


Contributed by Stephanie Meller, MD, Boston, MA



My patient with chronic alcoholism is showing signs of alcohol withdrawal even though his blood alcohol level (BAL) is still elevated. Is this possible?