Liver failure in pregnancy

Apart from HELLP syndrome (which is examined extensively in the SAQs) the other thing which keeps coming up regularly is the non-specific LFT derangement in a diffusely unwell pregnant lady. In the questions, she is typically hypertensive, with seizures, or febrile, or potentially on drugs- in short, the situation is complex and the differentials are broad. Then, the college ask "why is this patient jaundiced and comatose?" In ten minutes, one needs to be able to spout a list of plausible explanations. This chapter is dedicated to creating a matrix for such a response, as diagnosis and management of HELLP syndrome is dealt with elsewhere.

Examples of previous questions of this sort have included

So, the yellow pregnant patient is a favourite of the college. Typically, the college ask for a list of differentials as well as diagnostic tests which would confirm them. Such things are usually best described in the form of a table. Good articles inform the discussion, most notably the article by Guntupalli et al from the 2005 special pregnancy issue of Critical Care Medicine.

Acute Liver Failure in Pregnancy
Cause Diagnostic features Notes and management options
Causes of liver failure which are unrelated to pregnancy
Drug-induced hepatitis
  • Paracetamol level
  • N-acetylcysteine crosses the placenta and has a protective effect in the foetus (Horowitz et al, 1997)
Shock, haemorrhage
  • Ultrasound: structurally normal liver
  • The LFT derangement which follows resuscitation for severe postpartum haemorrhage
  • Should improve after the shock state has resolved
Decompensation of pre-existing liver disease
  • Ultrasound: cirrhosis
  • Risk of preterm delivery and peripartum complications is increased (Aggarwal et al, 1999)
  • Normal management of the cirrhotic patient applies
Causes of liver failure which are exacerbated by pregnancy
Viral hepatitis
  • Hep B and C serology
  • Most common cause of LFT derangement in pregnancy
  • B and C are the most common
  • usually, BP is normal (in contrast with HELLP)
  • Ribavirin is contraindicated (a teratogen)
  • Other antiviral drugs may still be useful to decrease the viral load preior to delivery (to protect the baby from vertical transmission)
Portal vein thrombosis
  • Ultrasound: portal vein occlusion on Doppler
  • Due to hypercoagulable state of pregnancy
  • Heparin infusion is the standard of care 
  • Generally, TIPS procedure is too technically difficult in pregnancy - but that is another option
Hepatic venous thrombosis
  • Ultrasound: hepatic vein occlusion on Doppler
  • Ultrasound: thickened gall bladder wall, stones
  • LFTs: cholestatic picture
  • Conservative antibiotic therapy is best
  • Non-emergency surgery has better outcomes, i.e. it pays to delay until the acute flare has passed (Casey et al, 1996)
Pregnancy-related causes of liver failure
Hyperemesis gravidarum
  • LFTs: "transaminitis"
  • Unlike the others, this is a feature mainly of the first trimester
  • It is associated with raised transaminases, as opposed to liver failure per se - synthetic function is preserved (Outlaw et al, 2000)
  • Antiemetics and supportive care are the only options
Intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy (icterus gravidarum)
  • History of jaundice and pruritis
  • LFTs: cholestatic picture
  • Ultrasound: gall bladder looks normal
  • Pruritis is usually the patient's greatest concern. Can be managed with ursodeoxycholic acid.
  • Resolves rapidly with delivery
  • Will occur again in the next pregnancy in 60%
  • LFT derangement is due to fibrin deposition and endothelial dysfunction in the sinusoids.
  • Typically, this is also not "liver failure" but rather an LFt derangement of unclear significance (Munazza et al, 2013)
  • Standard therapy applies: antihypertensives, magnesium sulfate, and urgent delivery
  • Thrombocytopenia
  • Low haptoglobin
  • Raised LDH,
  • Uncojugated bilirubin
  • Blood film features of haemolysis
  • See the local chapter.
  • Delivery is the treatment
  • Some authors recommend corticosteroids (Guntupalli et al, 2005) but only as a means of helping foetal lung maturation
  • Thrombocytopenia and LFT derangement will continue for up to 48 hours postpartum
  • Standard therapy applies: antihypertensives, magnesium sulfate, urgent delivery, correction of coagulopathy
Acute fatty liver of pregnancy
  • Presents with abdominal pain, vomiting, hypoglycaemia, coagulopathy
  • Characteristic ultrasound findings of the liver parenchyma
  • 18% maternal mortality, 23% foetal mortality (Guntupalli et al, 2005)
  • Liver failure is present, not just LFT derangement
  • Delivery fixes everything, as in HELLP
  • Fulminant liver failure may be present by then, and liver transplant may be the only option
Acute hepatic rupture
  • Ultrasound: haematoma
  • Haemodynamic instability and haemorrhagic shock
  • Abdominal pain (RUQ)
  • Haemoperitoneum
  • Maternal mortality is around 30% (Manas et al, 1985
  • If it has not ruptured (i.e. only a subcapsular haematoma) then conservative management and urgent dleivery are probably safe
  • Surgical packing and/or angioembolisation may be the only options
Other causes of febrile jaundiced coma with thrombocytopenia
  • Pentad: thrombocytopenia, microangiopathic haemolytic anemia, neurologic abnormalities, renal failure, and fever. See local chapter.
  • Low ADAMTS-13 levels are found. 
  • The SAQs often give a picture which could be consistent with TTP. It actually does occur often in pregnancy and the postpartum period (McMinn et al, 2001)
  • "How is this not HELLP?" one might ask. Well:
    • HELLP is never in the first trimester
    • HELLP always resolves following delivery
  • I.e. if after delivery the abnormalities persist, plasmapheresis becomes a serious option.
Sepsis with DIC
  • Bacteraemia
  • Haemodynamic instability, hypotension


Oh's Intensive Care manual:

Chapter 64   (pp. 684) General  obstetric  emergencies by Winnie  TP  Wan  and  Tony  Gin

Chapter 65   (pp. 692) Severe  pre-existing  disease  in  pregnancy by Jeremy  P  Campbell  and  Steve  M  Yentis

Pandey, Chandra Kant, et al. "Acute liver failure in pregnancy: Challenges and management." Indian journal of anaesthesia 59.3 (2015): 144.

Sahai, Shweta, and Ravi Kiran. "Acute liver failure in pregnancy: Causative and prognostic factors." Saudi journal of gastroenterology: official journal of the Saudi Gastroenterology Association 21.1 (2015): 30.

Guntupalli, Saketh R., and Jay Steingrub. "Hepatic disease and pregnancy: an overview of diagnosis and management." Critical care medicine 33.10 (2005): S332-S339.

Aggarwal, Neelam, et al. "Pregnancy and cirrhosis of the liver." Australian and New Zealand journal of obstetrics and gynaecology 39.4 (1999): 503-506.

Horowitz, Rivka S., et al. "Placental transfer of N-acetylcysteine following human maternal acetaminophen toxicity." Journal of Toxicology: Clinical Toxicology 35.5 (1997): 447-451.

Outlaw, William M., Jamal A. Ibdah, and Kenneth L. Koch. "Hyperemesis Gravidarum and Maternal Liver Disease." (2000).

Munazza, Bibi, et al. "Liver function tests in preeclampsia." J Ayub Med Coll Abbottabad 23.4 (2011): 3-5.

Manas, Kenneth J., et al. "Hepatic hemorrhage without rupture in preeclampsia." New England Journal of Medicine 312.7 (1985): 424-426.

Kang, Yun Dan. "Portal Vein Thrombosis during Pregnancy." Korean Journal of Perinatology 26.3 (2015): 245-249.

Casey, Brian M., and Susan M. Cox. "Cholecystitis in pregnancy." Infectious diseases in obstetrics and gynecology 4.5 (1996): 303-309.

McMinn, Johnny R., and James N. George. "Evaluation of women with clinically suspected thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura‐hemolytic uremic syndrome during pregnancy." Journal of clinical apheresis 16.4 (2001): 202-209.