Houston Methodist. Leading Medicine.
Houston Methodist. Leading Medicine

Center for Liver Disease & Transplantation

Types of Liver Disease

Hepatic encephalopathy is a disruption of brain function caused by liver failure. One of the liver’s key functions is processing toxins and waste materials, including ammonia. When this function is compromised due to liver disease, the toxins enter the bloodstream and eventually reach the brain, where they can damage brain cells.

The symptoms of hepatic encephalopathy are treatable, but the liver damage behind it is a more serious consideration that may require a transplant.

Symptoms of Hepatic Encephalopathy

Depending on the extent of the patient’s liver damage, symptoms of hepatic encephalopathy may range from mild cognitive impairment to coma. Specific symptoms may include:

  • Personality changes
  • Change in sleep patterns (sleeping more during the day than at night)
  • Confusion
  • Irritability
  • Forgetfulness
  • Poor concentration
  • Poor judgment
  • Lethargy or drowsiness
  • Jerking movement of the limbs (asterixis or “liver flap”)
  • Musty sweet odor on the breath

Diagnosing Hepatic Encephalopathy

Because most of its symptoms can be caused by numerous other conditions (including metabolic problems, stroke, drug overdose, or infection), hepatic encephalopathy can be difficult to diagnose.

Your physician will ask about your memory and your sleep habits. A test for elevated blood ammonia and zinc levels will also be performed; high levels of ammonia and low levels of zinc may indicate hepatic encephalopathy.

To find out more about the Methodist Center for Liver Disease and Transplantation, call us at 713-441-8839 or 866-94-LIVER (866-945-4837) or send us an email.