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J Am Coll Surg. 1997 Jun;184(6):557-70.

Experimental, clinical, and metabolic results of side-to-side portacaval shunt for intractable cirrhotic ascites.

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  • 1Department of Surgery, University of California, San Diego, Medical Center 92103-8999, USA.



Intractable ascites, refractory to medical therapy, occurs in approximately 10 percent of patients with ascites from cirrhosis and is almost always fatal. Sinusoidal hypertension resulting from hepatic venous outflow obstruction plays a primary role in the pathogenesis of cirrhotic ascites and provides the rationale for decompression of the liver by side-to-side portacaval shunt in treatment of intractable ascites. This report presents the experimental basis for the use of side-to-side shunt and long-term results of a prospective study in 34 selected patients with intractable cirrhotic ascites.


In the experimental studies, hepatic venous outflow obstruction and massive ascites were produced in dogs by ligation of the hepatic veins, and the effect of portacaval shunts on ascites, thoracic duct lymph flow, and aldosterone secretion were measured. In the clinical study, 34 carefully selected patients with cirrhosis (91 percent alcoholic) and truly intractable ascites (failure of medical therapy for 5 to 24 months) underwent side-to-side portacaval shunt. The effects on ascites, survival, metabolic abnormalities, and quality of life were studied prospectively during follow-up that was longer than 5 years in all but two patients. Quantitative Child's risk classes in percent of patients were A in 0, B in 68, and C in 32.


In the experimental studies, side-to-side portacaval shunt permanently relieved severe ascites, reduced the 13-fold increase in thoracic duct lymph flow rate to almost normal, and abolished the aldosterone hypersecretory response to minimal hepatic venous outflow obstruction. End-to-side portacaval shunt was much less effective. In the clinical study, side-to-side portacaval shunt reduced mean portal vein-inferior vena cava pressure gradient from 282 mm saline to 4 mm and permanently relieved all patients of ascites without subsequent requirement of diuretic therapy. Two patients who died of hepatoma, and one who died of heart failure developed terminal ascites. Thirty-day mortality rate was 6 percent, and long-term survival rates at 5, 10, and 15 years were 75 percent, 74 percent, and 73 percent. In metabolic studies, side-to-side shunt produced marked diuresis and natriuresis and abolished hypersecretion of aldosterone. Quality of life was generally improved as a result of a low incidence of recurrent portal-systemic encephalopathy (6 percent), abstinence from alcohol in 91 percent, improvement in liver function in 81 percent, and improvement in Child's risk class. The portacaval anastomosis remained permanently patent in every patient.


Side-to-side portacaval shunt is very effective treatment of intractable ascites from cirrhosis. Our results are attributable to careful selection of patients, an organized system of care, and a program of rigorous, lifelong follow-up that emphasizes abstinence from alcohol and dietary protein restriction.

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