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What Is a Liver Shunt (TIPS)?

TIPS Procedure: Effect on Kidneys, History and More

Robert Fontana, MD (internal medicine), University of Michigan

What is the effect of low blood pressure in a patient with Hep C who is waiting for a liver transplant?

  1. TIPS is an acronym for Transjugular Intrahepatic Portosystemic Shunt. This is a procedure performed by angiographers (vascular radiologists) at many major medical centers throughout the country for patients with various complications from their advanced liver disease. Initial work with the placement of TIPS devices in humans was first reported in 1982 by Colapinto but the more modern use of expandable metal mesh stents with significantly improved results was not reported till 1990 by Richter. Since 1990 refinements in technique and a growing experience with the method have made TIPS widely available in many major medical centers, particularly in liver transplant centers.
    Patients with cirrhosis develop high pressures in the main blood vessel that supplies the liver called the portal vein due to the increase resistance to blood flow in the diseased and scarred liver. A TIPS involves the creation of a tissue tract from the low pressure venous system that drains the liver to the high pressure venous system that feeds the liver in cirrhosis. The tract is made by inserting a catheter through a large blood vessel in the neck which communicates with the blood vessels draining the liver. Under X-RAY guidance, doctors are then able to establish within the substance of the liver an artificial tract or shunt to directly drain the portal vein into the general circulation. This is done via the use of several inflatable balloons followed by the careful insertion of an expandable, wire mesh stent. Doctors insert TIPS devices in patients with liver disease who have serious and life threatening complications such as the presence of hemorrhage from the stomach or esophagus, problematic fluid accumulation in the abdomen, and also for a form of kidney failure that arises in some patients with advanced liver failure. In addition to successfully decompressing the portal venous system in over 95% of cases, blood flow to the kidneys frequently improves. The increased blood flow to the kidneys will not injure them and in fact can lead to an overall improvement in kidney function in some patients with cirrhosis.
    A TIPS device is most commonly placed in a patient with chronic liver disease resulting from cirrhosis or scarring of the liver. TIPS were originally employed in patients as a “bridge” to liver transplantation. Nowadays, TIPS are being placed in some centers for non-transplant patients as well to treat life-threatening complications of cirrhosis. It should be kept in mind that a TIPS does not improve the overall functioning of the diseased liver and really only treats the complications of advanced liver disease. Therefore, the placement of a TIPS device is not a permanent solution for a patient with advanced liver disease. Many such patients have gone on to successful transplantation without any complications related to the placement of the TIPS device. During the transplant surgery, the TIPS device is removed in total along with the diseased liver.
  2. Many patients with cirrhosis or scarring of the liver develop abnormalities in their cardiovascular system as a result of their liver disease. All diseases that result in cirrhosis can lead to these cardiovascular changes but they occur more frequently in patients with more advanced disease. It is believed that substances circulating in the blood that are normally cleared by a healthy liver can cause a generalized dilatation of the blood vessels throughout the body (except in the kidney where they are intensely constricted). The generalized vasodilation then results in a low blood pressure. Most patients with this form of low blood pressure are asymptomatic because of its very gradual onset and because of a compensatory increased blood flow from the heart. There is no specific treatment for the development of low blood pressure in patients with cirrhosis other than general, supportive care. The blood pressure will normalize after removal of the diseased liver and transplantation of a healthy liver.

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Source: American Liver Foundation