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Hepatopulmonary Syndrome

By Mark T. Gladwin, MD, Jack D. Myers Professor and Chair, Department of Medicine; Director, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine; Pittsburgh Heart, Lung, and Blood Vascular Medicine Institute ; Andrea Levine, MD, Fellow, Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care Medicine, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center

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Hepatopulmonary syndrome is hypoxemia caused by pulmonary microvascular vasodilation in patients with portal hypertension; dyspnea and hypoxemia are worse when the patient is upright.

Hepatopulmonary syndrome results from the formation of microscopic intrapulmonary arteriovenous dilations in patients with chronic liver disease. The mechanism is unknown but is thought to be due to increased hepatic production or decreased hepatic clearance of vasodilators. The vascular dilations cause overperfusion relative to ventilation, leading to hypoxemia, particularly because patients have an increased cardiac output resulting from systemic vasodilation. Because the lesions frequently are more numerous at the lung bases, hepatopulmonary syndrome can cause platypnea (dyspnea) and orthodeoxia (hypoxemia), which occur when the patient is seated or standing and are relieved by recumbency. Most patients also have characteristic findings of chronic liver disease, such as spider angiomas. About 20% of patients present with pulmonary symptoms alone.


  • Pulse oximetry

  • Contrast echocardiography and sometimes other imaging

Hepatopulmonary syndrome should be suspected in patients with known liver disease who report dyspnea (particularly platypnea). Patients with such symptoms should have pulse oximetry. If the symptoms are severe (eg, dyspnea at rest), ABGs should be measured with the patient breathing room air and 100% oxygen to determine shunt fraction.

Pearls & Pitfalls

  • If patients have portal hypertension and dyspnea is relieved by recumbency, consider hepatopulmonary syndrome.

A useful diagnostic test is contrast echocardiography. Intravenous microbubbles from agitated saline that are normally trapped in the pulmonary capillaries rapidly (ie, within 7 heartbeats) traverse the lung and appear in the left atrium. Similarly, IV technetium-99m–labeled albumin may traverse the lungs and appear in the kidneys and brain. Pulmonary angiography may reveal a diffusely fine or blotchy vascular configuration. Angiography is generally not needed unless thromboembolism is suspected.


  • Supplemental oxygen

The main treatment is supplemental oxygen for symptoms. Other therapies, such as somatostatin to inhibit vasodilation, are of modest benefit in only some patients. Coil embolization is virtually impossible because of the number and size of the lesions. Inhaled nitric oxide synthesis inhibitors may be a future treatment option. Hepatopulmonary syndrome may regress after liver transplantation or if the underlying liver disease subsides. Prognosis is poor without treatment (survival < 2 yr).

Key Points

  • Patients with hepatopulmonary syndrome tend to have findings of chronic liver disease and may have platypnea.

  • If the diagnosis is suspected, do pulse oximetry and consider ABG and imaging (eg, contrast echocardiography).

  • Treat with supplemental oxygen.

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