What You Should Know About Primary Biliary Cirrhosis

Inflammation of the bile ducts often leads to primary biliary cirrhosis. This is an autoimmune condition that brings serious complications when left untreated.
What You Should Know About Primary Biliary Cirrhosis

Last update: 29 September, 2021

Primary biliary cirrhosis, now called “primary biliary cholangitis” is an autoimmune disease affecting the bile ducts of the liver. Its main characteristic is the progressive deterioration of the liver and leads to all kinds of health problems.

So far, researchers aren’t entirely clear on the cause of this disease. However, some link it to genetic and environmental factors. So what is it? How do doctors diagnose it? Continue reading to learn more about it.

What’s primary biliary cirrhosis?

According to the Revista Español de Enfermedades Digestivas, primary biliary cirrhosis is the inflammation of the bile ducts. These are the tubes that originate in the liver and reach the small intestine. Their function is to allow the bile to reach this section of the digestive tract and aid in the digestion process.

The disadvantage of this inflammation is it hinders the outflow of bile into the intestine. Consequently, this liquid accumulates in the ducts and leads to further problems. This is because an accumulation of bile in the liver damages and scars the cells of this organ and leads to cirrhosis.

Cirrhosis is a slow and gradual process. In fact, the liver cells degrade until they’re no longer able to function properly if left untreated. As you can imagine, this organ loses its functional capacity.

This isn’t always the case though. The timely treatment of the inflammation can help the liver maintain its functions. Otherwise, cirrhosis increases the risk of liver cancer and a transplant may be necessary.

An illustration of a liver.
Primary biliary cirrhosis is due to the inflammation of the bile ducts. As a result, bile accumulates and triggers health problems.

The cause of this disease

We’re not entirely clear on the cause of bile duct inflammation but most studies suggest it’s an autoimmune condition. What this means is the body generates the immune cells that attack these ducts.

Indeed, it can affect anyone just like any other autoimmune disease. However, it tends to afflict middle-aged people (between 40 and 60 years of age), 90% of which are women.

The symptoms of primary biliary cirrhosis

In most cases, doctors diagnose the disease by chance after doing a blood test or when people consult them for some other reason. This is because people are usually asymptomatic and there’s no physical evidence to suggest that they have cirrhosis.

The damage in the liver cells continues and certain clinical manifestations begin to occur due to the accumulation of bile if the problem isn’t diagnosed in its early stages. Some of the symptoms are:

  • Heavy digestion, especially with certain foods, and overall abdominal discomfort after meals
  • Itching, usually more intense at night, can affect any part of the body but is usually more bothersome in the palms of the hands and the plantar area
  • Tiredness and muscle weakness
  • Yellowing of the skin and mucous membranes, jaundice, when the disease is already advanced

Diagnosing this condition

As we mentioned above, doctors accidentally discover this disease during routine blood tests for the most part. They’ll do further complementary tests such as ultrasound scans or liver biopsies if so, or if they suspect it.

A diagnosed person must begin treatment as soon as possible. The specialist will decide the most appropriate therapeutic options in each case. They’ll aim to stop the autoimmune response and prevent damage to the bile ducts so that the disease doesn’t continue to progress.

A lab technician filling out a form.
A blood test is often what reveals changes that raise suspicion of cirrhosis.

Things to remember about primary biliary cirrhosis

This is an autoimmune disease and can affect anyone, but mainly middle-aged women. The most important thing is to diagnose it as soon as possible in order to start treatment and prevent its progression to cirrhosis.

Finally, many patients should be able to lead a normal life. However, there may not be a positive response to treatment in some cases and these might even require a liver transplant.

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