Common Terms

This is a glossary of common medical terms related to cirrhosis and other liver diseases.

Ascites (“a-sigh-tees”)

An abnormal build-up of fluid in the abdomen (belly).

Asterixis (liver flap)

Flapping movement of the hands, sometimes referred to as “liver flap”. This happens when the liver can’t remove toxins from the bloodstream, a condition called hepatic encephalopathy. The toxins affect the brain, which causes the hand flapping.

Benign tumour

A growth that is not caused by cancer.

Beta-blockers

Medicines (like propranolol and nadolol) that lower blood pressure and heart rate. People with cirrhosis usually take them to lower the chance of developing complications and the risk bleeding from enlarged veins called varices.

Bile

A substance produced by the liver and stored in the gallbladder. Bile contains many different substances including salts, cholesterol, and bilirubin. After a meal, the gallbladder pumps bile into the first part of the small intestine to help with digestion. This also helps to break down fats.

Child-Pugh score (CTP)

A score that indicates how sick your liver might be. Based on this score, there are three stages:

  • A: Mild
  • B: Moderate
  • C: Severe

If you’re in stage B or C, you should be considered for a liver transplant.

Many people with liver cancer also have cirrhosis. To treat the cancer, doctors need to know their patients’ CTP.

Cirrhosis

Scarring in the liver.

CT scan

A type of scan used to take pictures of inside the body. It uses computer-processed X-rays to make the pictures. People with cirrhosis might have a CT scan to see the liver and other structures inside the abdomen.

Diuretics

Water pills such as spironolactone (Aldactone®) and furosemide (Lasix®). These help the body eliminate extra fluid build-up. For people with cirrhosis, fluid most commonly builds up in the belly (ascites), legs (edema). or around the lungs (pleural effusion).

Encephalopathy (“en-sef-a-lop-a-thee”)

Changes in brain function, such as memory trouble, confusion or sleepiness, which happen when toxic substances (like ammonia) aren’t filtered by the liver.

Endoscopy

A procedure where a doctor inserts a thin, flexible viewing tube called an endoscope (or scope) to look at internal areas of your body. Examples of endoscopies include colonoscopy, cystoscopy, and upper endoscopy (gastroscopy). An upper endoscopy is the type endoscopy doctors use to look for varices (enlarged veins) in people with cirrhosis.

Esophagus

The tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach. Sometimes referred to as the food pipe.

Fever

Fever is usually defined as having a temperature of 38°C (100.4°F) or higher.

A temperature between 37.5°C (99.5°F) and 37.9°C (100.2°F) and feeling unwell is also a cause for concern in someone with cirrhosis. 

Gastroscopy

A procedure where a doctor inserts a thin, flexible viewing tube called a gastroscope (or scope) to look in your esophagus (food pipe), stomach, and upper part of your small intestine. A gastrosocpy is the type endoscopy doctors use to look for varices (enlarged veins) in people with cirrhosis.

Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC)

A type of cancer that starts in the liver, also known as HCC.

Hepatocytes (“hep-a-toh-sites”)

Liver cells.

Indwelling abdominal catheter

A soft, flexible tube that runs underneath your skin to an area in your belly to drain fluid called ascites.

Jaundice

Yellowing of the eyes and skin that shows the liver is malfunctioning. Jaundice is also a symptom of cirrhosis.

Liver resection

Surgery to remove part of the liver. This is sometimes done to treat liver cancer.

Liver transplant

When a surgeon removes your liver and replaces it with either an entire liver from a deceased donor or a portion of a liver from a living donor.

MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)

A scan used to look at internal structures of the body in more detail using magnetic fields and radio waves.

MELD score

The MELD (model for end-stage liver disease) score is a scoring system based on lab tests. It helps determine how sick the liver is. Healthcare providers use MELD to rank the need and urgency for liver transplant. In general, a higher the MELD score means the liver is sicker.

Paracentesis (“par-a-sen-tee-sis”)

A procedure used to drain fluid from the abdomen called ascites. people often call it a tap.

Percutaneous liver biopsy

A procedure for removing samples of liver tissue. After freezing with a local anesthetic, the doctor inserts a small needle through the skin and into the liver. There’s a very small risk of bleeding from the biopsy and some discomfort, but it’s well-tolerated by most people. The needle removes 2 or 3 small samples of liver tissue.

Peritoneal cavity

The space between your internal organs and the wall of your abdomen. This is where ascites fluid builds up.

Portal vein

The vein that carries blood from your intestines to your liver.

Risk factors

Anything that increases your chance of getting a disease.

Spider angioma (“an-gee-o-ma”)

Tiny veins that look like small red spiders on the face, chest, and arms. Spider angiomas can be a sign of cirrhosis.

Transjugular liver biopsy

A type of liver biopsy used for people who have a problem with blood clotting or a large amount of fluid in their abdomen (ascites). A small tube is inserted into the jugular (neck) vein, using X-rays to help guide the tube down into a large vein in the liver. Then the doctor uses a small needle passed through the tube to remove 2 or 3 small samples of liver tissue.

Ultrasound

A type of scan that uses sound waves other vibrations to look at organs, vessels, and tissues inside your body.

Varices (“vare-i-sees”)

Enlarged veins in the lining of the esophagus and upper stomach. These are caused by increased blood pressure in the portal vein, a common complication related to having cirrhosis. Some people can also get varices in their rectum.

References:

The information on this page was adapted (with permission) from the references below, by the Cirrhosis Care Alberta project team (physicians, nurse practitioners, registered nurses, registered dietitians, physiotherapists, pharmacists, and patient advisors).

This information is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare team. They know your medical situation best. Always follow your healthcare team’s advice.

References: 

  1. US Department of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Health Administration 
Last reviewed March 15, 2021
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