The Treatment of Acute Variceal Bleeding
Juan G. Abraldes, MD*w and Jaime Bosch, MD*w
ﬁrst 5 days with 40% of all rebleeding episodes occurring
Abstract: Bleeding from gastroesophageal varices is a frequent in this very early period, remain high during the ﬁrst 2
and often deadly complication of cirrhosis. Although mortality weeks and decline then slowly in the next 4 weeks. After 6
from an episode of variceal bleeding has decreased in the last weeks the risk of further bleeding becomes virtually equal
2 decades it is still around 20%. This paper reviews the most to that before bleeding.4 Currently available treatments
recent advancements in the general management and hemostatic have reduced 6-week rebleeding to 20%.1 Early rebleed-
treatments of acute variceal bleeding. ing is a strong predictor of death from variceal bleeding.
Key Word: portal hypertension Prognostic indicators for early rebleeding were assessed in
most studies together with initial failure to control
(J Clin Gastroenterol 2007;41:S312–S317) bleeding and 5-day risk for death, as a composite end
point referred to as ‘‘5-day failure.’’ Bacterial infection,5,6
active bleeding at emergency endoscopy,1,6 Child-Pugh
class or score,1,6,7 aspartate aminotransferase levels,1
NATURAL HISTORY AND PROGNOSIS presence of portal vein thrombosis,1 and a hepatic venous
pressure gradient (HVPG) >20 mm Hg measured shortly
Ruptured esophageal varices cause 70% of all upper
after admission7–9 have been reported as signiﬁcant
gastrointestinal bleeding episodes in patients with portal
predictors of risk for 5-day failure.
hypertension.1 Thus, in any cirrhotic patient with acute
upper gastrointestinal bleeding, a variceal origin should
be suspected. Diagnosis is established at emergency Mortality
endoscopy on the basis of observing one of the following: Mortality from variceal bleeding has greatly de-
active bleeding from a varix (observation of blood creased in the last 2 decades, from 42% mortality in the
spurting or oozing from the varix), white nipple or clot Graham and Smith4 study in 1981 to the current 15%
adherent to a varix, and presence of varices without other to 20%.1,10–12 This is probably due to implementation
potential sources of bleeding. of eﬀective treatments [endoscopic and pharmacologic
therapies and transjugular intrahepatic portosystemic
Initial Control of Bleeding stent-shunt (TIPS)], and from improved general medical
Because variceal bleeding is frequently intermittent, care (ie, antibiotic prophylaxis). Because it may be
it is diﬃcult to assess when the bleeding stops and when a diﬃcult to assess the true cause of death (ie, bleeding
new hematemesis or melena should be considered an vs. liver failure or other adverse events), the general
episode of rebleeding. Several consensus conferences have consensus is that any death occurring within 6 weeks from
addressed this issue and set deﬁnitions for events and hospital admission for variceal bleeding should be
timing of events related to episodes of variceal bleeding.2 considered as a bleeding-related death.2 Immediate
Using these deﬁnitions, data from placebo-controlled mortality from uncontrolled bleeding is in the range of
clinical trials show that variceal bleeding is spontaneously 4% to 8%.1,13 Prehospital mortality from variceal
controlled in 40% to 50% of patients.3 Currently bleeding might be around 3%.14 The risk for mortality
available treatments increase control of bleeding to about peaks the ﬁrst days after bleeding, slowly declines
80% of the patients.1 thereafter, and after 6 weeks becomes constant and
virtually equal to that before bleeding.3,4 Nowadays only
Early Rebleeding 40% of the deaths are directly related to bleeding,
The incidence of early rebleeding ranges between whereas most are caused by liver failure, infections, and
30% and 40% in the ﬁrst 6 weeks. The risk peaks in the hepatorenal syndrome.1 Thus, although there is still room
for improving hemostatic treatments, to substantially
decrease mortality from variceal bleeding therapies
Received for publication July 3, 2007; accepted July 6, 2007. should be able to prevent deterioration of liver and renal
From the *Hepatic Hemodynamic Laboratory, Liver Unit, Institut
Malalties Digestives i Metaboliques, Hospital Clı´ nic; and wCiberehd
and Institut d’Investigacions Biomediques August Pi i Sunyer The most consistently reported death risk indicators
(IDIBAPS), University of Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain. are Child-Pugh classiﬁcation or its components, blood
Supported in part by Fondo de Investigacion Sanitaria (PI 050519 to urea nitrogen or creatinine, active bleeding on endoscopy,
Juan G. Abraldes and 05/1285+06/0623 to Jaime Bosch).
Reprints: Juan G. Abraldes, MD, Liver Unit, Hospital Clı´ nic, Villarroel
hypovolemic shock, and hepatocellular carcinoma.1,4,5,15
170, Barcelona 08036, Spain (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org). Prognostic indicators gathered in the early follow-up
Copyright r 2007 by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins include early rebleeding, bacterial infection, and renal
S312 J Clin Gastroenterol Volume 41, Supp. 3, November/December 2007
J Clin Gastroenterol Volume 41, Supp. 3, November/December 2007 Acute Variceal Bleeding
failure.15 From these data it is clear that management of
Change in portal pressure (mmHg)
bleeding cirrhotic patients should be aimed not only at
controlling the bleeding, but also at preventing early 3
rebleeding, infection, and renal failure. transfusion (1:3 blood/expander) as Placebo
2 required to maintain MAP 80 mmHg
Acute variceal bleeding should be managed in an 0
intensive care setting by a team of experienced medical 20 ’ 25 ’ 40 ’
staﬀ, including well-trained nurses, clinical hepatologists, analogue
endoscopists, interventional radiologists, and surgeons. FIGURE 1. Effects of blood volume replacement on portal
Lack of these facilities demands immediate referral. pressure in rats with a portal hypertension-related bleeding.
Decision-making shall follow the guidelines set up in a Even by using a conservative target (mean arterial pressure of
written protocol developed to optimize the resources of 80 mm Hg) volume replacement induced a rebound increase
each center. in portal pressure. This was totally blunted by the use of a
vasopressin analog (constructed with data from Ref. 19).
The general management of the bleeding patient is Pugh classiﬁcation) without increasing the incidence of
aimed at correcting hypovolemic shock (with judicious adverse events.21 A more recent trial tested rVIIa in
volume replacement and transfusion) and at preventing patients with active bleeding at endoscopy and with a
complications associated with gastrointestinal bleeding Child-Pugh score Z8 points. This trial failed to show a
(bacterial infections, hepatic decompensation, renal beneﬁt of rVIIa in terms of decreasing the risk of 5-day
failure), which are independent of the cause of the failure but improved 6-week mortality.22
hemorrhage and demand immediate management. Infection is a strong prognostic indicator in acute
Initial resuscitation should follow the classic variceal bleeding.6 The more frequent infections are
Airway, Breathing, Circulation scheme, and it is aimed spontaneous bacterial peritonitis (50%), urinary tract
at maintaining the aerobic metabolism by restoring an infections (25%), and pneumonia (25%). The use of
appropriate delivery of oxygen to the tissues (which antibiotics in acute variceal bleeding has been shown to
depends on SaO2, cardiac output, and hemoglobin reduce both the risk of rebleeding23 and mortality.24
concentration). Therefore, antibiotics should be given to all patients from
Airway should be immediately secured, especially in admission. Quinolones are frequently used due to its easy
encephalopathic patients, because the patient is at risk of administration and low cost.25 In high-risk patients
bronchial aspiration of gastric contents and blood. This (hypovolemic shock, ascites, jaundice, or malnutrition)
risk is further exacerbated by endoscopic procedures. IV ceftriaxone has recently been shown to be superior to
Endotracheal intubation is mandatory if there is any oral norﬂoxacin.26
concern about the safety of the airway. Blood volume Variceal bleeding can trigger hepatic encephalopa-
replacement should be initiated as soon as possible with thy. However, there is no data to support the prophylactic
plasma expanders, aiming at maintaining systolic blood use of lactulose or lactitol.2
pressure around 100 mm Hg. Avoiding prolonged hypo-
tension is particularly important to prevent infection, Hemostatic Treatments
renal failure, and deterioration of liver function which are Initial therapy for acute variceal bleeding is based
associated with increased risk of rebleeding and death.15 on the combination of vasoactive drugs with endoscopic
Although it has been shown that volume expansion may therapy. Rescue therapies for failures include balloon
induce rebound increases in portal pressure and rebleed- tamponade and portal-systemic shunts, either surgical or
ing,16,17 the use of vasopressin analogs or somatostatin TIPS.
blunt the increase in portal pressure induced by volume
expansion18,19 (Fig. 1). Thus, the use of vasoactive drugs Pharmacologic Therapy
allows a less conservative blood volume restitution policy. The action of vasoactive drugs is to reduce variceal
Blood transfusion should aim at maintaining the hema- pressure by decreasing variceal blood ﬂow. The selection
tocrit at 0.21 to 0.24 (Hb 7 to 8 g/L),2 except in patients of the drug depends on the local resources. Terlipressin
with rapid ongoing bleeding or with ischemic heart should be the ﬁrst choice if available, because it is the
disease. The role of platelet transfusion or fresh frozen only drug shown to improve survival.3,27 Somatostatin,
plasma administration has not been assessed appropri- octreotide, or vapreotide are second choice.3,28 If these
ately. The use of recombinant activated factor VII (rVIIa, drugs are not available vasopressin plus transdermal
Novoseven), which corrects prothrombin time in cirrho- nitroglycerin is an acceptable option.3
tics,20 has been assessed in 2 randomized controlled trials
(RCTs). The ﬁrst trial showed, in a post hoc analysis, that Terlipressin
rFVIIa administration may signiﬁcantly improve the It is a long-acting triglycyl lysine derivative of
results of conventional therapy in patients with moderate vasopressin. Clinical studies have consistently shown less
and advanced liver failure (stages B and C of the Child- frequent and severe side eﬀects with terlipressin than with
r 2007 Lippincott Williams Wilkins S313
Abraldes and Bosch J Clin Gastroenterol Volume 41, Supp. 3, November/December 2007
vasopressin, even when vasopressin is associated with of sclerotherapy have shown a signiﬁcant beneﬁt in terms
nitroglycerin. The most common side eﬀect of this drug is of reducing early rebleeding.37 It has been speculated that
abdominal pain. Serious side eﬀects such as peripheral or this may be related to its sustained ability to prevent
myocardial ischemia occur in 3% of the patients.29 postprandial increase in portal pressure.28 Mortality,
Terlipressin may be initiated as early as variceal bleeding however, was not aﬀected.3,37 These results suggest that
is suspected at a dose of 2 mg/4 h for the ﬁrst 48 hours, octreotide may improve the results of endoscopic therapy
and it may be maintained for up to 5 days at a dose of but has uncertain eﬀects if used alone. When compared
1 mg/4 h to prevent rebleeding.29 Compared with placebo with other vasoactive drugs, octreotide was better than
or nonactive treatment terlipressin signiﬁcantly improves vasopressin and equivalent to terlipressin, again suggest-
the rate of control of bleeding and survival.30 This is the ing a clinical value from the use of octreotide, although all
only treatment that has been shown to improve prognosis these studies were underpowered and none was double-
of variceal bleeding.3,30 Terlipressin is as eﬀective as any blind.3
other eﬀective therapy, including endoscopic injection
sclerotherapy, and is safer than vasopressin+nitrogly- Endoscopic Therapy
cerin and endoscopic injection sclerotherapy.3,29,30 The Both sclerotherapy and band ligation [endoscopic
overall eﬃcacy of terlipressin in controlling acute variceal
band ligation (EBL)] have shown to be eﬀective in the
bleeding at 48 hours is of 75% to 80% across trials,30 and
control of acute variceal bleeding. Two randomized trials
of 67% at 5 days.29 Terlipressin is also useful in speciﬁcally compared band ligation and sclerotherapy in
hepatorenal syndrome.31 Thus, the use of terlipressin
acute variceal bleeding.38,39 In one of them all patients
for variceal bleeding may prevent renal failure, which is
received also pharmacologic therapy (somatostatin).39 In
frequently precipitated by variceal bleeding.15
8 additional trials these 2 modalities were compared both
in acute bleeding and in the prevention of rebleeding.
Meta-analysis shows that EBL is better than sclerother-
It is commonly used as an initial bolus of 250 mg
apy in the initial control of bleeding, and is associated
followed by a 250 mg/h infusion that is maintained until
with less adverse events and improved mortality (Fig. 2).
the achievement of a 24 hours bleed-free period. The
Additionally, sclerotherapy, but not EBL, may induce a
bolus injection can be repeated up to 3 times in the ﬁrst
sustained increase in portal pressure.40 Therefore, EBL
hour if bleeding is uncontrolled. Therapy may be further should be the endoscopic therapy of choice in acute
maintained for up to 5 days to prevent early rebleeding.32
variceal bleeding, though injection sclerotherapy is
The use of higher doses (500 mg/h) cause a greater fall in
acceptable if band ligation is not available or technically
HVPG and translates into increased clinical eﬃcacy in the
diﬃcult. Endoscopic therapy can be performed at the time
subset of patients with more diﬃcult bleedings (those with
of diagnostic endoscopy, early after admission, provided
active bleeding at emergency endoscopy).33 Major side
that a skilled endoscopist is available. This is important
eﬀects with somatostatin are rare. Minor side eﬀects, such
because there has been an increased frequency of
as nausea, vomiting, and hyperglycemia occur in up 30%
aspiration pneumonia since emergency endoscopic ther-
of patients.32–34 Several RCTs showed that somatostatin
apy has become universal practice.
signiﬁcantly improves the rate of control of bleeding
compared with placebo or nonactive treatment.3,28 How-
ever, despite the beneﬁcial eﬀect on control of bleeding,
somatostatin did not reduce mortality.3 Somatostatin has Current Recommendations for Initial Treatment
been compared with terlipressin and no diﬀerences were The current recommendation is to combine these 2
found for failure to control bleeding, rebleeding, mortal- approaches, starting vasoactive drug therapy early
ity, or in the incidence of adverse events in both treatment (ideally during the transferal to the hospital, even if
groups.3 active bleeding is only suspected) and performing EBL
(or injection sclerotherapy if band ligation is technically
Octreotide diﬃcult) after initial resuscitation when the patient is
It is a somatostatin analog with longer half-life. stable and bleeding has ceased or slowed (Fig. 3). The
This, however, is not associated with longer hemody- rationale for that comes from a number of RCTs
namic eﬀects than somatostatin.35 The optimal doses are demonstrating that early administration of a vasoactive
not well determined. It is usually given as an initial bolus drug facilitates endoscopy and improves control of
of 50 mg, followed by an infusion of 25 or 50 mg/h.28 As bleeding and 5-day rebleeding.27,34,41,42 Drug therapy
with somatostatin, therapy can be maintained for 5 days also improves the results of endoscopic treatment if
to prevent early rebleeding. The safety proﬁle of octreo- started just after sclerotherapy or band ligation.3,37 Vice
tide is close to that of somatostatin. The eﬃcacy of versa, the association of endoscopic therapy also im-
octreotide as a single therapy for variceal bleeding is proves the eﬃcacy of vasoactive treatment.34 However,
controversial. No beneﬁt from octreotide was found in this combined approach failed to signiﬁcantly improve 6-
the only trial using octreotide or placebo as initial week mortality with respect to endoscopic therapy43 or a
treatment,36 which may be due to rapid development of vasoactive drug34 alone. The optimal duration of drug
tachyphylaxis.35 However, RCTs using octreotide on top therapy is not well established and requires evaluation.
S314 r 2007 Lippincott Williams Wilkins
J Clin Gastroenterol Volume 41, Supp. 3, November/December 2007 Acute Variceal Bleeding
2/14 3/13 0.62 [0.12, 3.13]
2/21 2/23 1.10 [0.17, 7.10]
3/14 0/11 5.60 [0.32, 98.21]
1/9 1/9 1.00 [0.07, 13.64]
1/10 1/12 1.20 [0.09, 16.84]
0/20 2/16 0.16 [0.01, 3.15]
1/18 3/15 0.28 [0.03, 2.40]
1/37 8/34 0.11 [0.02, 0.87]
1/5 1/7 1.40 [0.11, 17.45]
4/90 13/89 0.30 [0.10, 0.90]
238 229 0.47 [0.27, 0.81]
7/37 12/34 0.54 [0.24, 1.20]
12/90 19/89 0.62 [0.32, 1.21]
127 123 0.59 [0.35, 0.98]
FIGURE 2. Meta-analysis comparing the efficacy of urgent EBL versus sclerotherapy as initial treatment in variceal bleeding. EBL is
more effective for the initial control of bleeding and is associated with less mortality. #All patients received somatostatin.
Current recommendation is to maintain the drug for 2 to
5 days, to cover the period of maximum risk of
In 10% to 20% of patients variceal bleeding is
unresponsive to initial endoscopic and/or pharmacologic
treatment. If bleeding is mild and the patient is stable a
second endoscopic therapy (if technically possible) might
be attempted. If this fails, or bleeding is severe, the patient
should be oﬀered a derivative treatment, before the
clinical status of the patient further deteriorates. Balloon
tamponade achieves hemostasis in 60% to 90% of
variceal bleedings44 but should only be used in the case
of a massive bleeding, for a short period of time (24 h)
as a temporal ‘‘bridge’’ until deﬁnite treatment is
instituted. Bleeding recurs after deﬂation in over half of
the cases and severe complications are common. A recent
report suggest that the use of esophageal covered stents
might achieve hemostasis in most patients with refractory
FIGURE 3. Recommendations for the treatment of acute bleeding,45 with the advantage over tamponade of less
bleeding from esophageal varices. severe complications despite much longer periods of
r 2007 Lippincott Williams Wilkins S315
Abraldes and Bosch J Clin Gastroenterol Volume 41, Supp. 3, November/December 2007
treatment. Adequately designed trials should conﬁrm 10. Carbonell N, Pauwels A, Serfaty L, et al. Improved survival after
these ﬁndings. variceal bleeding in patients with cirrhosis over the past two decades.
Both TIPS and surgical shunts are extremely Hepatology. 2004;40:652–659.
11. Chalasani N, Kahi C, Francois F, et al. Improved patient survival
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approaches 95%), but due to worsening of liver function Gastroenterol. 2003;98:653–659.
and encephalopathy mortality remains high.44,46 TIPS is 12. Stokkeland K, Brandt L, Ekbom A, et al. Improved prognosis for
ﬁrst choice, because most patients requiring rescue patients hospitalized with esophageal varices in Sweden 1969-2002.
treatment have advanced liver disease. Anyhow, rarely,
13. D’Amico G, Luca A. Natural history. Clinical-haemodynamic
if ever, a patient with a Child-Pugh score over 13 will correlations. Prediction of the risk of bleeding. Baillieres Clin
survive TIPS. This clearly indicates that some patients do Gastroenterol. 1997;11:243–256.
not beneﬁt from TIPS in this setting, and sometimes it is 14. Nidegger D, Ragot S, Berthelemy P, et al. Cirrhosis and bleeding:
diﬃcult to make a clinical-based decision. Prognostic the need for very early management. J Hepatol. 2003;39:509–514.
15. Cardenas A, Gines P, Uriz J, et al. Renal failure after upper
scores47 may provide objective parameters to ease the gastrointestinal bleeding in cirrhosis: incidence, clinical course,
decision of not oﬀering invasive treatments in diﬃcult predictive factors, and short-term prognosis. Hepatology. 2001;34:
The high mortality associated with the use of TIPS 16. McCormick PA, Jenkins SA, McIntyre N, et al. Why portal
as a rescue treatment raises the question on whether hypertensive varices bleed and bleed: a hypothesis. Gut. 1995;
patients with poor prognostic indicators might beneﬁt 17. Castaneda B, Debernardi-Venon W, Bandi JC, et al. The role of
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This was recently explored in a randomized trial in which Hepatology. 2000;31:581–586.
patients with high portal pressure (20 mm Hg) were 18. Villanueva C, Ortiz J, Minana J, et al. Somatostatin treatment and
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going standard therapy.9 However, the standard therapy portal hypertensive rats. Hepatology. 2003;38:1378–1383.
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therapy, which is not the current standard of combination factor VII (rFVIIa) acutely normalizes prothrombin time in patients
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