Alcoholic liver disease (ALD), a progressive illness caused by years of excessive drinking, can destroy the liver to such an extent that a transplant is sometimes necessary. Studies show the importance of substance abuse treatment for the transplant to be a success.
How your liver helps your body
The liver is the body’s second biggest organ. It looks like a partially deflated football and weighs around three pounds. Located under the right side of the ribcage, the liver is the body’s purification plant, taking whatever a person drinks and eats and converting them into usable nutrients and energy. At the same time, the liver purifies the blood by filtering out toxins.
How alcohol can cause ALD
Alcohol, as far as the liver is concerned, is a toxin. The liver breaks down alcohol and filters it. But alcohol damages liver cells. Too much alcohol at once can overwhelm the liver, causing damage over time. Not everyone who drinks will develop ALD, but a certain percent of drinkers will. The longer a person drinks, the more likely it is that they will develop ALD, even if they never drink to the point of drunkenness.
Stages of ALD
ALD worsens with time. Initially a person who over consumes alcohol will have the common problem of fatty liver disease. The next stage of ALD is called alcoholic hepatitis, where the liver becomes inflamed with some scarring occurring as tissues harden. A person could recover from either stage one or stage two of ALD if they stop drinking.
The final stage of ALD is cirrhosis. At this point the liver tissues have become so damaged that they are tough and the liver is mostly scar tissue. It is not possible to reverse the effects of the disease at this stage, and 10-20% of long-term drinkers will develop cirrhosis. If nothing changes, the person will need a liver transplant.
High risk of relapse in transplant recipients
Survival rates are pretty much equal for people receiving a liver transplant whether or not they had ALD. However, if a person continues drinking after they receive a liver transplant, then the risk of failure goes up considerably. Sadly, as many as 90% of transplant recipients relapse.
How addiction treatment helps transplant recipients
One study indicates that if a person receiving a liver transplant receives addiction treatment both prior to and following their transplant, then their chances of relapse go down. In many cases, a person must receive substance abuse treatment in order to be considered as a transplant candidate. Other research shows that continuing the treatment following transplantation minimizes the risk of relapse. Drinking alcohol following a transplant promotes fibrosis (scarring) and lowers graft success.
Since ALD is the number two reason why people need a liver transplant, knowing what increases the chances of transplant success is vital. ALD leads to people to need a new liver. Helping them on both sides of transplantation will give them the best chance of keeping that new organ.