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Management of variceal haemorrhage in cirrhotic patients
  2. D W PATCH
  1. Liver Transplantation and Hepatobiliary Unit
  2. Royal Free Hospital, Pond Street
  3. London NW3 2QG, UK
  1. Dr A K Burroughs andrew.burroughs{at}
  1. R JALAN
  1. P C HAYES
  1. Institute of Hepatology
  2. University College London Medical School
  3. London, UK
  4. Liver Unit, Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh
  5. Edinburgh, UK
  1. Dr R Jalan, Institute of Hepatology, University College London Medical School, 69–75 Chenies Mews, London WC1E 6HX, UK. r.jalan{at}

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Editor,—We have serious concerns about several of the recent UK guidelines for the management of variceal haemorrhage in cirrhotic patients (Gut2000;46(suppl 3 and 4):iiiI–iii115), particularly those that contradict current published evidence. We highlight below the ones we feel are the most important.

In the management of acute variceal bleeding, variceal ligation is not the method of first choice which was given an AI recommendation. Meta-analysis of all trials of acute bleeding of banding versus injection sclerotherapy have shown no statistically significant difference between the two treatments for either control of bleeding or survival (data derived from 12 studies with 419 patients), with no statistical heterogeneity.1

The implication of recommending ligation for acute bleeding is that double intubation would be necessary in a patient who is actively bleeding so as to attach the ligation device after the initial diagnostic endoscopy. Although there is no evidence, this would create more risk to the patient; it is common sense that a single intubation would be preferable and would take less time. At best the recommendation should be that either endoscopic technique could be used as first choice, dependent on operator expertise and facilities.

Secondly, there is evidence from randomised studies of vasoactive drug therapy combined with endoscopic techniques that combination therapy is superior in terms of control of bleeding. This is based on five randomised studies with 610 patients (pooled odds ratio 0.42, 95% confidence interval 0.29–0.6).1 Publication bias assessment has shown that 29 null or negative studies would be needed to render the results non-significant, and thus this effect is fairly robust. Moreover, in several of these studies vasoactive drugs were given before diagnostic endoscopy, demonstrating their utility during the period of resuscitation before endoscopy could be safely performed, which in practice may be several hours after admission. This goes against the recommendation that drugs can be used if endoscopy is not available. Drugs should be used first followed by therapeutic endoscopy.

As regards the prevention of rebleeding from sources due to portal hypertension, the treatment of first choice, unless there are contraindications, is either non-selective β blockers as they are equivalent to sclerotherapy,1 or band ligation. No fully published randomised studies are available with regard to β blockers versus banding. If banding is not available, β blockers should be used, not sclerotherapy, as recommended. If there are contraindications or intolerance to β blockers, banding should be used. One can argue cogently that as non-selective β blockers are cheap and do not involve repeated endoscopy sessions, they always should be considered the treatment of first choice.

The recommendation of measuring hepatic venous pressure gradient (HVPG) in patients given β blockers cannot be one for current practice. Only two Spanish groups have suggested this, and it is unclear when a repeat measurement should be performed. Moreover, both a 20% reduction from baseline HVPG or an absolute reduction to less than 12 mm Hg are “protective” from rebleeding, so both end points, and not just the absolute reduction, need to be mentioned if this management strategy is used. In any case the randomised studies versus sclerotherapy used non-selective β blockers empirically to the maximum tolerated by patients so that use of drugs without pressure measurement was effective. Lastly, if the recommendation of using drugs with re-measurement of pressure is taken to its logical conclusion, all patients should be tried on drugs first, as those who respond have far less rebleeding (10% or less) than patients who receive banding, and secondly, a recommendation of what to do next would need to be made for those who do not reduce their portal pressure (for which as yet there is no evidence).

Lastly, two meta-analyses comparing TIPS with endoscopic techniques showed that TIPS did not improve survival.2 ,3 The increased encephalopathy, greatly increased cost, as well as poor availability of TIPS treatment does not make it a first choice treatment for rebleeding, even in centres with expertise such as the authors' own, as stated in the guidelines. Thus the AI recommendation grading is particularly inappropriate.

With respect to primary prevention of portal hypertensive bleeding in cirrhotics, the recommendation that nitrates should be used if neither β blockers nor banding are available or contraindicated is potentially dangerous. A long term randomised study has shown that at least in elderly patients, nitrates on their own decrease survival.4 Thus to err on the side of caution, nitrates cannot be recommended as a substitutive therapy.

Finally, the guidelines should have included some issues of general management—for example, resuscitation with fluids, early assessment of portal vein patency, and presence of hepatocellular carcinoma—and an AI recommendation for the use of prophylactic antibiotics in acute bleeding based on the meta-analysis the authors quoted.5 A corrected and improved update of these guidelines is needed soon.



Editor,—We thank Dr Burroughs and Dr Patch for their interest and helpful comments on the UK guidelines in the management of variceal bleeding. A number of the points raised by them reflects the fact that it is not always possible to directly translate the evidence that is gleaned from clinical trials into clinical practice because of the subjectivity in the definition of evidence based medicine. There is a lot of argument in the literature about what constitutes research evidence. Indeed, there is ongoing debate whether the results of a good randomised controlled trial are more reliable than a meta-analysis on the same subject because the latter often suffers from problems introduced by heterogeneity between studies.1-1 1-2

For the preparation of the present “guidelines”, about 300 papers were reviewed and 208 have been referred to in the paper. It is clear that the vast majority of these studies were not adequately powered to detect differences in mortality and a number of points that have been raised by Dr Burroughs and Dr Patch represent alternative interpretation of the available data which are not necessarily at variance with the “guidelines”.

Before discussing the specific points raised by them, it is important to point out that:

  • Although the guidelines were written by us, they have undergone several revisions based on peer review organised by the British Society of Gastroenterology (BSG), Liver Section. This review process we believe was extensive and largely anonymous. The guidelines therefore represent the views of the BSG.

  • The guidelines were first commissioned in 1996 but finally accepted for publication following several alterations in mid-1998. Some of the more important data were added into the text (the antibiotic prophylaxis section) during the proof stage.

With respect to the specific comments:

(a) We agree with Dr Burroughs and Dr Patch that studies have not shown any significant differences between band ligation and sclerotherapy in their ability to control bleeding. Also, most patients who have had a variceal bleed and are undergoing endoscopy are not bleeding actively. It is therefore relatively easy to band in these situations and a double intubation using the new multi-band ligation devices is not necessarily a problem. Studies have also shown that complications from endoscopic therapy in the form of oesophageal ulcers, mediastinitis, and pneumonia are significantly less in the group treated with band ligation compared with sclerotherapy. This is associated with reduced mortality in patients treated with band ligation. It stands to reason therefore that band ligation should be used where possible as there is no significant difference between treatments in their ability to control bleeding but the rate of complications has been shown to be significantly less in the band ligation group.1-3-1-6

(b) Interpretation of data regarding the combination of vasoactive drugs with endoscopic therapy in the setting of acute bleeding is fraught with difficulties and there is no clear evidence that the combination reduces mortality. This is despite a large number of trials in this area. The meta-analysis that Burroughs and Patch (published in 1999) refer to as a justification for the combination treatment shows no differences in survival between groups.1-7 The role of vasoactive drugs in the management of variceal bleeding is an area of intense research by a number of groups and data are needed before the combination treatment can be recommended in routine clinical practice.

(c) With respect to secondary prophylaxis of variceal haemorrhage, the literature suggests that various treatments such as sclerotherapy, β blockers, or a combination of these are similar in the long term (reviewed by D'Amico and colleagues1-8). Most patients that we treat in the UK with variceal bleeding have underlying alcoholic liver disease and who have a questionable compliance. The recommendation is that if only a β blocker is used we should ensure that this is having some effect on the most important parameter predictive of rebleeding, a portal pressure gradient <12 mm Hg (about 30% of patients in different studies show inadequate portal pressure response to β blocker therapy). It has been shown in a prospective study that in patients being treated with β blockers, none with a hepatic venous pressure gradient <12 mm Hg bled and only 8% of those whose hepatic venous pressure gradient fell by more than 20% on therapy bled during follow up.1-9 However, if portal pressure studies are included in patients being treated with β blockers, this is likely to increase both the cost and invasiveness. We do agree that we should add to the guidelines that a reduction in portal pressure gradient by 20% or more from baseline is acceptable.

(d) The guidelines clearly state what Dr Burroughs and Dr Patch suggest in their letter: “TIPSS is more effective than endoscopic treatment in reducing variceal rebleeding but does not improve survival and is associated with more encephalopathy”. Three studies have shown that TIPSS is as cost effective as endoscopic treatment.1-10-1-12The only study that suggests that TIPSS is more expensive is an Italian study in which TIPSS was not strictly being used for secondary prophylaxis with patients being randomised for as long as six months after their initial variceal bleed.1-13 Studies that have compared TIPSS with band ligation have not shown any significant differences in encephalopathy between groups.1-10 1-14 This has, however, not been borne out in a meta-analysis.1-15 But it is clear from individual trials and also from the meta-analysis that TIPSS significantly reduces the rate of rebleeding.

(e) The recommendation grade for the use of isosorbide-5-mononitrate (ISMN) in case of failure of propranolol or band ligation is grade B1 and is based on the equivalence study of ISMN and propranolol by Angelico and colleagues.1-16 The paper that Dr Burroughs and Dr Patch refer to is a post hoc analysis of data from a study that was first reported in 1993.1-17 A preliminary report of another study has not confirmed these findings1-18 and it is clear that more data are needed before nitrates can be suggested as being dangerous in the primary prophylaxis of variceal bleeding.

(f) Our brief was to develop guidelines about the management of variceal bleeding and not about the detailed intensive care management. We have however included some pointers in the guidelines which we thought were likely to be useful. We accept that the use of prophylactic antibiotics should be a grade 1A recommendation. This section on the use of antibiotics following a variceal bleed was added during the proof stage following the availability of the meta-analysis by Bernard et al in 1999.1-19

We do agree with Dr Burroughs and Dr Patch that the treatment options in portal hypertension are continuously evolving and with the emergence of new data, “guidelines” should be revised to incorporate the advances that have occurred in that time.


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