Diagnosis of cirrhosis and portal hypertension: imaging, non-invasive markers of fibrosis and liver biopsy
Diagnosis of cirrhosis and portal hypertension: imaging, non-invasive markers of fibrosis and liver biopsy
Bogdan Procopet 1
Annalisa Berzigotti 0
0 Swiss Liver Center , Hepatology , University Clinic for Visceral Surgery and Medicine, Inselspital, University of Bern , Bern , Switzerland
1 University of Medicine and Pharmacy 'Iuliu Hatieganu', 3rd Medical Clinic and Hepatology Department, Regional Institute of Gastroenterology and Hepatology 'O Fodor' , Cluj-Napoca , Romania
The concept of 'cirrhosis' is evolving and it is now clear that compensated and decompensated cirrhosis are completely different in terms of prognosis. Furthermore, the term 'advanced chronic liver disease (ACLD)' better reflects the continuum of histological changes occurring in the liver, which continue to progress even after cirrhosis has developed, and might regress after removing the etiological factor causing the liver disease. In compensated ACLD, portal hypertension marks the progression to a stage with higher risk of clinical complication and requires an appropriate evaluation and treatment. Invasive tests to diagnose cirrhosis (liver biopsy) and portal hypertension (hepatic venous pressure gradient measurement and endoscopy) remain of crucial importance in several difficult clinical scenarios, but their need can be reduced by using different non-invasive tests in standard cases. Among non-invasive tests, the accepted use, major limitations and major benefits of serum markers of fibrosis, elastography and imaging methods are summarized in the present review.
compensated advanced chronic liver disease; hepatic venous pressure gradient; elastography; ultrasound
Classically, cirrhosis is defined by its histological hallmark
findings on liver biopsy (regenerative nodules surrounded by
fibrotic tissue) and is considered as the final evolution stage of
any progressive liver disease, irrespective of its etiology. The
advances in diagnostic methods allow now early diagnosis, even
before the development of complications, which are mostly
related to development of portal hypertension [
with the development of new and very effective treatments,
especially in the viral-related cirrhosis scenario, there is
increasing evidence that cirrhosis can regress and that histological
improvement is associated with better prognosis [
in the particular case of direct acting antiviral (DAA) treatment
of hepatitis C virus (HCV), some data suggest that the
complications of portal hypertension can occur even after sustained
virological response (SVR) and the risk of hepatocellular carcinoma
(HCC) is not abolished [
]. Therefore, the international expert
consensus currently suggests continuing screening and
surveillance of these patients according to the standard guidelines
used for portal hypertension and HCC, and it is still unknown
whether these patients should be managed and followed
according to different schemes.
The natural history of cirrhosis is marked by the transition
from the compensated stage (with good prognosis) to the
occurrence of decompensation events, such as ascites, variceal
bleeding, jaundice and hepatic encephalopathy. If the diagnosis
of cirrhosis is relatively straightforward during the
decompensated stage when the treatment may be problematic, on the
contrary, diagnosing cirrhosis while it is still in the
compensated stage is more challenging. The progression of fibrosis
parallels the increase in portal pressure and, frequently, patients
with severe fibrosis in the pre-cirrhotic stage have a hepatic
venous pressure gradient (HVPG) >5 mmHg [
]. Since chronic
liver disease is a continuum, and due to the inhomogeneity of
fibrosis within the liver [
], the border between severe fibrosis
and compensated cirrhosis is often unclear and, recently, the
Baveno VI consensus recommended that this clinical scenario
including severe fibrosis and initial cirrhosis should be named
compensated advanced chronic liver disease (cACLD) [
Moreover, the concept of diagnosis of cirrhosis is changing
from the documentation of histological F4 fibrosis to the
identification of patients truly at risk of developing complications. It
has been clearly demonstrated that the onset of clinically
significant portal hypertension (defined as HVPG 10 mmHg)
marks the progression to a stage at risk of clinical
complications. In this scenario, non-invasive methods able to mirror the
haemodynamic threshold play an important role. For instance,
according to the recommendations of the last Baveno
consensus conference, liver stiffness (measured by transient
elastography) over 21 kPa is accurate enough to identify patients with
clinically significant portal hypertension, so allowing a simple
and readily available risk stratification when more
sophisticated and exact methods are not available [
]. The natural
history of chronic liver disease eventually leading to cACLD and
complications of cirrhosis is represented in Figure 1, together
with the main tests used for its diagnosis, staging and risk
In this manuscript, we review the diagnostic performance
of gold-standard invasive methods and surrogate
noninvasive methods used in this setting in light of the new concept
Gold-standard diagnostic methods for cirrhosis and portal hypertension
Liver biopsy is still considered the gold-standard diagnostic
method to identify the typical features of cirrhosis. Alternative
diagnostic methods have been validated in comparison to liver
biopsy and have a good diagnostic accuracy for the diagnosis of
cirrhosis. As a consequence, the use of liver biopsy has dramatically
decreased in the last 10 years; nonetheless, it remains a crucial
diagnostic tool when concomitant potential etiological factors for
liver disease coexist and when the identification of features other
than fibrosis leads to changes in the clinical management of
patients, such as in the case of acute or chronic liver injury.
Currently, the most important and frequent scenario that requires
a mandatory liver biopsy is the differentiation between severe
alcoholic hepatitis and decompensated alcoholic cirrhosis, because
by now there are no specific clinical signs or non-invasive
methods to differentiate between the two conditions [
]. Liver biopsy is
largely used in patients with suspected liver cirrhosis of unknown
aetiology in order to confirm the diagnosis and expand on its
possible cause (e.g. indicating the distribution of fibrosis in the liver).
It remains key also in the case of suspected non-alcoholic
steatohepatitis (NASH)-related ACLD and in cholestatic and
autoimmune chronic liver disease for which data regarding the
diagnostic accuracy of non-invasive methods are scarce.
Liver biopsy can be carried out from a percutaneous or a
transjugular route. Percutaneous liver biopsy is done through a
right intercostal space after or under ultrasound control, on
local anaesthesia, using Menghini core-aspiration or Tru-cut
automatic 16-gauge needles. Before the procedure, coagulation
parameters should be checked (including platelet count and
prothrombin time/international normalized ratio). The 50/50
rule (prothrombin time over 50% and platelet count over
50 109/L) is frequently used to consider the coagulation and
platelet status acceptable. The contraindications for
percutaneous liver biopsy include severe coagulopathy, biliary ducts
dilatation, sepsis, ascites, suspicion of vascular lesions, hydatid
disease or uncooperative patient [
]. Some of the
contraindications (especially coagulopathy and ascites) are overcome by
using a transjugular approach that carries lower haemorrhagic
risk. The most frequent indications for liver biopsy are
presented in Table 1 [
Regarding the diagnostic performance of both approaches,
although previously transjugular liver biopsy was considered
inferior because of the use of thinner needles (18G), there is
strong evidence suggesting that the two techniques are similar
in terms of sample length and the number of complete portal
]. The greatest advantage of the transjugular route is
that it allows concomitant HVPG measurement and multiple
passes without increasing the risk of complications.
Liver fibrosis and its patterns remain of paramount
importance in risk stratification of patients, even in those who have
fully established liver cirrhosis. Four main patterns of fibrosis
development according to different aetiologies are described:
(i) portal-to-central fibrosis distribution (characteristic to viral
and autoimmune hepatitis); (ii) portal-to-portal distribution
(specific for biliary diseases); (iii) perisinusoidal and pericellular
distribution (metabolic diseases, alcoholic and non-alcoholic
liver diseases) and (iv) central-to-central fibrosis distribution
(for venous outflow obstruction such as Budd-Chiari syndrome)
]. According to the different types of fibrosis distribution, the
portal hypertension occurs earlier, as in the case of viral,
autoimmune or Budd-Chiari syndrome, or later in the course of the
disease, as in the case of metabolic diseases. Interestingly, even
if sinusoidal portal hypertension develops later in the case of
biliary diseases, due to the portal-to-portal distribution of
fibrosis and development of porto-portal septa, there is an increased
presinusoidal resistance that will increase portal pressure, so
that the HVPG underestimates the value of the portal pressure
gradient in patients with cholestatic liver disease.
As the disease progress, the amount of fibrosis increases and
in parallel the portal pressure rises [
] corresponding to
worsening in the prognosis [
]. The Laennec sub-classification of
cirrhosis  in three subclasses of stage 4: 4A—mild cirrhosis with
thin septa and large nodules; 4B—at least two broad septa, but
no very broad septa and less than half of biopsy length
composed of minute nodules; 4C—very broad septum or more than
half of biopsy length composed of minute nodules (micronodular
cirrhosis) offers additional prognosis relevance [
histological markers of fibrosis regression under therapy, named
‘hepatic repair complex’, can be observed, and consist of delicate
and perforated fibrous septa; isolated and thick collagen fibres;
delicate periportal fibrous spikes; portal tract remnants; hepatic
vein remnants with prolapsed hepatocytes; hepatocytes within
portal tracts or splitting septa; minute regenerative nodules; and
aberrant parenchymal veins [
Because the majority of complications are conditioned by
portal hypertension occurrence, the measurement of HVPG has
probably an important prognostic relevance that might exceed
that of histological modifications. HVPG is through internal
jugular vein, femoral vein or cubital vein access under local
]. One of the hepatic veins is catheterized with a
balloon catheter under fluoroscopic control. By the inflation of
the balloon, the hepatic venous outflow is blocked and, at the
end of 1–2 minutes, the pressure at the tip of the catheter equals
that of the hepatic sinusoidal pressure and portal pressure,
respectively. That represents the wedge hepatic venous pressure
(WHVP). Free hepatic venous pressure (FHVP) is measured by
deflating the balloon at 2–3 cm from the hepatic vein ostium,
and usually its value is very close to the inferior vena cava.
HVPG is the difference between WHVP and FHVP, and
represents the pressure gradient that the portal blood flow has to
exceed to pass through the liver. While some authors consider
that FHVP should be substituted by the pressure in the inferior
vena cava or right atrium pressure , HVPG loses its
prognostic value if it is calculated to any other vessel except the liver
vein, so that FHVP should be mandatorily used [
Due to the relative invasiveness and the lack of wide
diffusion of the method, HVPG is considered by many as only a
research method to assess portal pressure but, in the authors’
opinion, it should be considered a crucial and readily available,
mature method to achieve clinically important information. In
clinical practice is a useful technique to make the differential
diagnosis in case of clinical signs of portal hypertension,
especially if cirrhosis is not obvious on non-invasive techniques
such as ultrasound or transient elastography. HVPG is a safe
Transjugular liver biopsy
Need for parallel measurement of hepatic venous pressure gradient (HVPG)
Contraindications to percutaneous access (note that dilatation of the biliary
tree is a contraindication for any liver biopsy)
Suspicion of severe alcoholic hepatitis
Acute liver failure of unknown aetiology
Suspicion of non-cirrhotic portal hypertension
Abnormal liver test in haematological patients
technique that has no absolute contraindications [
In patients requiring transjugular liver biopsy, the
measurement of HVPG adds only a few minutes to the procedure but
provides very relevant haemodynamic information. In our
practice, whenever liver biopsy is indicated in patients with cACLD,
we prefer the transjugular approach to obtain both histological
findings and HVPG measurement.
HVPG is probably the most validated tool for assessing
prognosis in cACLD. In Table 2 are presented the most relevant
clinical end-points with which HVPG was associated [
All this body of evidence indicates HVPG to be the best tool for
assessing the prognostics of patients with cACLD.
An ideal diagnostic and prognostic method would reflect
also the changes under therapy. A decrease in HVPG <10 mmHg
under non-selective beta-blockers prevents the development of
varices in patients with clinically significant hypertension [
in patients with high-risk varices, a decrease to < 12 mmHg or
with 20% from the baseline will prevent first variceal bleeding;
and, in patients who have already suffered variceal bleeding,
the reduction of HVPG below this threshold will prevent
], these patients being considered ‘responders’.
Moreover, in patients with clinically significant hypertension
(HVPG 10 mmHg), without any previous decompensation and
high-risk varices under primary prophylaxis with nadolol,
a 10% decrease in HVPG prevents the development of ascites
. In ‘non-responders’, further decrease in HVPG could be
obtained by adding isosorbid-5-mononitrate [
] or shifting from
propranolol to carvedilol [
As for the histological modification, portal pressure is
increasing over time in parallel to the worsening of liver
function, and patients that were considered good ‘responders’
may lose their response to beta-blockers [
]. However, with
effective etiological treatment, portal pressure can improve [
At the moment, it is unknown whether clinically significant
hypertension should be seen as a point of ‘no return’ [
this particular context, where liver-stiffness measurement is at
the moment of unclear value, more data about fibrosis and
portal pressure dynamics are needed to better understand how
patients who have improved under treatment should be further
managed and, therefore, liver biopsy and HVPG measurement
should be encouraged.
Due to its extensive validation against strong clinical
endpoints and since changes in HVPG well reflect changes in
prognosis (in terms both of improvement when HVPG decreases and
of worsening when HVPG increases), HVPG is probably the best
surrogate marker of clinical events in patients with cACLD.
Bleeding from oesophageal varices remains one of the most
severe complications of cirrhosis despite the advances in its
management. In order to prevent bleeding from occurring, an
appropriate early diagnosis of oesophageal varices at risk of
bleeding should be achieved. Upper digestive tract endoscopy is
the gold-standard method for diagnosing the presence of
gastroesophageal varices and identifying signs of risk of bleeding
(large size; red signs). Universal endoscopic screening of
oesophageal varices was recommended in all patients newly
diagnosed with cirrhosis until 2015 [
]. However, due to the
increase in the proportion of patients with early cirrhosis/
cACLD achieved by non-invasive diagnostic methods, this
strategy proved to lead to a large number of unnecessary
] that would eventually decrease the patient’s compliance
and increase the health system costs. In the last 10 years,
increasing evidence regarding non-invasive methods (especially
transient elastography) accumulated and proved useful for
stratifying the risk of carrying varices and varices requiring
treatment in patients with cACLD. Based on an acceptable risk
of 5% of missed varices requiring treatment, the 2015 Baveno
consensus conference recommended that patients with normal
platelet count and liver-stiffness measurement by transient
elastography <20 kPa could safely avoid screening endoscopy
]. Papers published in full and several abstracts confirmed
that this strategy is safe and allows the sparing of 15–25% of
unnecessary endoscopies. Patients exceeding at least one of these
criteria should undergo screening endoscopy in order to detect
high-risk varices that would benefit from prophylactic
treatment. It is important to note that this strategy applies to
wellcompensated patients, while patients with decompensated
cirrhosis should undergo endoscopy irrespective of their
platelet count and liver-stiffness value, due to the much higher risk
of varices requiring treatment in this population [
Endoscopy remains needed to identify other signs of portal
hypertension such as hypertensive gastropathy that is often the
cause of minor bleeding in patients with cirrhosis.
Non-invasive serum markers of fibrosis
Since a long time ago, simple blood tests were used in the
diagnosis and prognostication of patients with advanced liver
diseases. The most largely used is a combination of markers of
liver synthetic function (albumin, bilirubin and prothrombin
time) that, together with two clinical variables (presence and
severity of ascites and encephalopathy), constitute the Child-Pugh
]. The possibility of achieving a diagnosis with blood
tests is appealing, since the approach would have an
applicability close to 100%. Hence, several serum tests including direct
markers of extracellular matrix remodelling and indirect
markers (liver function tests, transaminases, platelet count)
and combined panels/scores have been elaborated on to
respond to different clinical questions such as fibrosis staging,
diagnosis of cirrhosis, presence of portal hypertension and
prognosis of patients with cACLD. Table 3 summarizes the most
validated serum tests for diagnosis of cirrhosis and clinically
significant portal hypertension validated in comparison with
HVPG measurement [
As may be seen, the majority of serum scores are very well
validated for the diagnosis of cirrhosis and could be easily used
according to the local availability. However, as previously
shown, the main cause of complications in patients with cACLD
is clinically significant portal hypertension and this should be
the key diagnostic feature for risk stratification of these
patients. Unfortunately, serum tests are not sufficiently validated
for this purpose and, therefore, none can be used alone for
selecting patients who would eventually avoid endoscopy.
Although never used alone, platelet count is probably the most
routinely used test to look for portal hypertension in cACLD.
Low platelet count is very common in patients with cirrhosis,
with 78% of patients developing thrombocytopenia [
most of the time, it represents a sign of portal hypertension [
In the absence of thrombocytopenia, portal hypertension can be
haemodynamically present, but the likelihood of large
oesophageal varices is low; a normal platelet count added to < 20 kPa at
liver-stiffness measurement by transient elastography,
screening endoscopy constitutes a simple rule to exclude the
presence of gastroesophageal varices requiring treatment [
A valuable non-invasive surrogate should also have
prognostic relevance. Simple serum variables as albumin, bilirubin,
prothrombin time and creatinine have been extensively
validated within different prognostic models used to classify
cirrhosis stage, such as Child-Pugh or MELD (Model for End-stage
Liver Disease) score [
]. Only a few of the non-invasive
scores designed to diagnose fibrosis have been tested for
prognostic aims. Among them, the enhanced liver fibrosis (ELF) test
and Fibrotest are the most validated, the latter having similar
performance in predicting 5-year survival to liver-stiffness
measurement by transient elastography in a large cohort of
HCV patients ; nonetheless, only a minority of patients
included in this study had cirrhosis and, therefore, the results
are difficult to interpret in the context of cACLD.
From a physics point of view, elasticity (reciprocal of stiffness)
is defined as the hability of a tissue of maintaining its shape
after being challenged by a mechanical stress. This is an
intrinsic characteristic of each tissue, and is expressed by the Young’s
elastic module [
]. The application of a mechanical stimulus
such as a vibration or an ultrasound impulse to a tissue induces
the formation of shear waves in the tissue itself. These
propagate into the tissue with a velocity depending on the tissue
elasticity according to the following formula: Elasticity ¼ 3 q
(density) V (propagation velocity) [
If the amplitude and frequency of the initial stimulus are
known, by using ultrasound or magnetic resonance, it is
possible to measure the velocity of the propagation of the shear
waves and, consequently, it is possible to estimate the elasticity
of a given tissue.
The healthy liver is an elastic (low-stiffness) organ, while
fibrosis induces an increase in its stiffness [
]. This is the
rationale for the use of elastography methods to estimate fibrosis;
however, it should be underlined that any process occupying
space in the liver tissue (e.g. inflammation, venous congestion,
cholestasis and infiltrative neoplastic processes) and meal
ingestion increase liver stiffness independently of fibrosis, and
this should be taken into account in the interpretation of
Among ultrasound-elastography methods, transient
elastography (TE; Fibroscan VR, Echosens, Paris, France) has been the
first developed to assess liver stiffness. A detailed explanation
of the technical aspects can be found elsewhere [
]. TE has
proved to be very accurate in identifying and ruling out cirrhosis
in patients with chronic liver disease of many different
aetiologies (most data have been provided in patients with chronic
viral hepatitis), with an area under the ROC curve (AUC) of 0.94
on meta-analysis [
]. Values above 10 kPa are suggestive of
ACLD and values above 12.5 kPa have an accuracy of over 90% in
detecting cirrhosis [
], provided the above-mentioned
confounders are excluded. Given that liver fibrosis is the major
component of hepatic resistance, and given that hepatic
resistance is the major factor leading to portal hypertension in
patients with compensated cirrhosis (Ohm’s law applied to
hydrodynamics: Pressure ¼ Resistance Flow), liver stiffness
has been tested as a surrogate of portal pressure in cirrhosis.
Interestingly, it was observed that liver stiffness is able to
identify clinically significant portal hypertension with a high
accuracy (AUC of 0.93 on meta-analysis [
]). Values 21 kPa are
highly specific of clinically significant portal hypertension
] and are associated with increased risk of clinical
decompensation of cirrhosis and with increased risk of HCC [
Despite the fact that liver-stiffness measurement (LSM) is
not an optimal method to identify gastroesophageal varices
], it is now accepted that the combination of values of LSM by
TE < 20 kPa and a platelet count >150 109/L can rule out large
oesophageal varices in compensated patients, so leading to a
reduction in the number of unnecessary endoscopies to screen for
]. It is important to notice that LSM cannot be used as
a perfect surrogate of HVPG, since, above the threshold of
10–12 kPa, LSM and HVPG are no longer strictly correlated [
Furthermore, LSM changes in patients on non-selective
betablockers do not mirror changes in HVPG and TE cannot be used
to monitor the haemodynamic response to beta-blockers.
Other newer ultrasound-elastography methods that are
incorporated in standard ultrasound equipments include point
shear-wave elastography (pSWE; taking advantage of acoustic
radiation force impulse imaging) and two-dimensional
shearwave elastography (2D-SWE) [
]. These techniques allow
visualizing in real time the area where the measurement of
elastic-wave velocity is performed; the measurement needs to
follow reliability criteria based on the quality of the ultrasound
image and the result is given either as metres/second or as kPa.
The first pSWE available in the market (VirtualTouch, Siemens,
Germany) is now considered validated and provides a higher
applicability for the measurement of liver stiffness as compared
to TE, with similar accuracy for detecting liver cirrhosis ; the
suggested cut-off is 1.80–1.85 m/sec. The first 2D-SWE available
in the market (Aixplorer, Supersonic Imagine, France) is close to
validation; its applicability and diagnostic performance seem
comparable to those of TE [
]. The suggested cut-off for
cirrhosis is 11.5 kPa.
Limited data are available regarding the accuracy of pSWE
and 2D-SWE for portal hypertension, but pilot experiences
suggest that these methods yield similar results as compared to TE
Since the spleen in patients with cirrhosis undergoes
enlargement and changes mostly related to portal hypertension
], spleen-stiffness measurement (SSM) has been proposed as
a novel parameter, not yet routinely used, to better mirror portal
hypertension as compared to LSM [
]. In the first studies using
TE, SSM showed a close correlation to HVPG and, in a
metaanalytic review of 16 studies performed by different
ultrasoundelastography methods, SSM was superior to LSM to predict the
presence of oesophageal varices [
]. SSM by using TE has
substantial limitations, including low applicability in normal-sized
spleens and a ceiling effect at 75 kPa, limiting risk stratification
above this threshold.
Magnetic resonance elastography (MRE) has been proposed
as a method to evaluate both liver and spleen stiffness,
overcoming some of the limitations of ultrasound-elastography
methods (no need for an acoustical window, freely oriented
field of view, lack of sensitivity to body habitus) [
]. MRE has
proved to be accurate in stage of liver fibrosis (being marginally
better than TE and pSWE in two studies [
]) and is a highly
promising method for diagnosing cirrhosis in patients
unsuitable to ultrasound elastography. It holds high reproducibility
and, interestingly, changes in MRE correlate with changes in
Recently, Ronot et al used multiparametric MRE in a small
series of 36 patients on the waiting list for orthotopic liver
transplantation undergoing HVPG measurement and endoscopy [
Three different liver and spleen parameters were assessed,
namely storage, loss and shear moduli. The spleen loss
modulus was the best parameter for identifying patients with
severe portal hypertension (AUC ¼ 0.81, p ¼ 0.019) or high-risk
varices (AUC ¼ 0.93, p ¼ 0.042), confirming previous data
regarding the potential of spleen stiffness on the evaluation of portal
hypertension in cirrhosis.
Limitations of MRE include its high cost and limited
availability, which currently prevent its use as a routine diagnostic
Ultrasound is the first-line imaging examination to be
performed in patients with suspected cirrhosis and/or portal
hypertension. Ultrasound is safe, can be repeated easily, is not
expensive and is highly sensitive in detecting thrombosis in the
portal vein and hepatic veins, so allowing a correct differential
diagnosis of new cases of portal hypertension [
]. As for the
limitations, inter-observer variability is considered a major
drawback, but appropriate training and knowledge markedly
reduce it. Intestinal gas and obesity limit the exploration.
Ultrasound signs of cirrhosis on grey-scale (B mode) include
changes in liver morphology and signs of portal hypertension
(Table 4). Most signs have a high specificity and can be
considered sufficient to confirm the diagnosis of cirrhosis. On the
other hand, the sensitivity of most individual signs is low,
indicating that a negative result cannot fully rule out cirrhosis in
patients with compensated chronic liver disease.
The most accurate single sign for the diagnosis of cirrhosis,
which can be found even in early phases and should be always
specifically investigated, is nodularity of the liver surface
]. The use of high-frequency transducers increases the
diagnostic performance of conventional abdominal ultrasound
probes and should be preferred [
]. False-positive findings
are rare but have been described (e.g. fulminant hepatitis
leading to the collapse of large parenchyma areas). The combination
of nodular liver surface and portal vein mean velocity below
12 cm/sec holds an accuracy of 80% for discriminating between
patients with chronic hepatitis with severe fibrosis and those
with cirrhosis [
]. In patients with clinical suspicion of
cirrhosis and confounding conditions, the detection of nodular liver
surface is an excellent non-invasive method to rule in cirrhosis,
while the combination of ultrasound and TE allows the best
diagnostic performance [
Similarly to what has previously been discussed regarding
cirrhosis, most ultrasound signs of portal hypertensions are
specific, but their sensitivity is moderate, especially in
compensated cirrhosis; therefore, while the presence of a sign or a
combination of signs permits confirming portal hypertension, the
absence of ultrasound signs cannot exclude this diagnosis
]. Only two signs are 100% specific (pathognomonic) signs
of portal hypertension, namely porto-systemic collaterals (e.g.
paraumbilical vein, spleno-renal collaterals, etc.) and reversal of
flow in the portal vein system.
Splenomegaly is commonly associated with portal
hypertension; this sign is more sensitive than other signs, but less
specific. However, increasing spleen size is an independent
predictor of gastroesophageal varices in compensated cirrhosis
Other signs include dilatation of the portal venous system
vessels, lack of or reduced respiratory variations of splenic and
superior mesenteric vein diameter, reduced portal vein velocity,
increased congestion index of the portal vein and an altered
Doppler pattern in the liver veins. Less commonly explored
signs include changes in the arterial flow pattern of the hepatic,
splenic, mesenteric and renal arteries.
Despite the fact that most of these signs show some degree
of correlation with the HVPG, none of them can be used as a
reliable surrogate for haemodynamic measurement either at first
examination or after starting non-selective beta-blocker
therapy. Nonetheless, ultrasound parameters hold prognostic value
and can suggest a worsening of portal hypertension on
]. For instance, the development of or increase in the
number of visible porto-systemic collaterals and progressive
spleen size increase are associated with variceal formation and
growth. Finally, Doppler ultrasound can be used to follow up the
patency of transjugular intrahepatic porto-systemic shunt
(TIPS) and proved useful to save unnecessary invasive
haemodynamic procedures .
Computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance
Most of the signs mentioned in the ultrasound section suggest
cirrhosis on other cross-sectional imaging (Table 4) [
following an approach first suggested by our group on ultrasound
], it has been recently described that the quantitative
measurement of liver surface nodularity from routine CT
images in the portal venous phase is accurate in differentiating
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cirrhosis from non-cirrhotic livers [
]. If validated, this
measurement could be implemented routinely in patients with
chronic liver disease undergoing CT.
Contrast-enhanced cross-sectional imaging allows very
accurate visualization of the portal venous system and of the
porto-systemic collaterals, so potentially providing useful data
to detect oesophageal varices. However, while large
oesophageal varices can be reliably diagnosed by single- or
multidetector CT (sensitivity 84–100%; specificity 90–100%), inter-observer
reproducibility is moderate and the sensitivity of the method
for the detection of small varices is low. Due to these
limitations, endoscopic screening is more cost-effective than
contrast-enhanced CT followed by endoscopic screening in
positive cases [
Dynamic contrast-enhanced techniques on CT and MRI
(compartmental analysis of intensity versus time curves for
magnetic resonance images of the liver after injection of a
gadolinium chelate; phase contrast MR angiography) allow
quantitative measurement of perfusion [
] and portal and azygos
blood flow [
]. In one paper, HVPG correlated with a portal
fraction of liver perfusion  and, in another, it correlated
with azygos blood flow [
]; the latter parameter weakly
correlates with the presence of oesophageal varices. In recent work,
the combination of longitudinal relaxation time (T1) of the liver
and splenic artery velocity remained independently associated
with HVPG [
]. Future studies should address the practical
use and the cost-effectiveness of these possible predictors in
Conclusions and future directions
As shown in the present review, it is currently possible to
diagnose liver cirrhosis and portal hypertension accurately by
noninvasive methods in a fair proportion of patients with chronic
liver disease. However, all methods have pros and cons
(Table 5). New, more sophisticated non-invasive diagnostic
methods such as MRE, new software analysis of images
obtained with the existing technology such as the analysis of the
nodularity of liver surface on ultrasound [
] and CT images [
and dynamic techniques on MRI are emerging tools further
improving this possibility. Nonetheless, it should be remembered
that an accurate diagnosis requires not only practical skills and
specific knowledge of the methods to be used, however, but also
clinical experience and critical judgment to identify potential
false negatives and false positives of the tests used. In this
context, liver biopsy is and will continue to be a crucial tool for
patients in whom the clinical features are not typical, in whom
the results of non-invasive tests are discordant and in acquiring
better knowledge of the natural history/regression of cACLD
after effective cure of the cause leading to cirrhosis.
Interdisciplinary Grant 2015 of the University of Bern
Conflict of interest statement: none declared.
Diagnosis of cirrhosis and portal hypertension | 87
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