Overview of Hepatorenal Syndrome

This complication of liver disease can cause kidney failure

Human organs don't execute their responsibilities in isolation. They communicate with each other. They depend on each other. Understanding an organ's function requires one to understand the role of the other organs as well. The human body is like a really complicated orchestra. If you were to just listen to individual musicians, you might not appreciate the symphony. Once we understand this important concept, it becomes easier to appreciate that problems with one organ's function could adversely affect another. 

Diagram of the human body showing internal organs
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Definition of Hepatorenal Syndrome (HRS)

As the term suggests, the word "hepato" pertains to the liver, while "renal" refers to the kidney. Hence, hepatorenal syndrome implies a condition where liver disease leads to kidney disease or in extreme cases, complete kidney failure

But, why do we need to know about hepatorenal syndrome? Liver disease is a fairly common entity (think hepatitis B or C, alcohol, etc). And in the universe of liver disease, hepatorenal syndrome is not an uncommon condition. In fact, according to one statistic, 40 percent of patients with cirrhosis (scarred, shrunken liver) and ascites (fluid accumulation in the belly which happens in advanced liver disease) will develop hepatorenal syndrome within 5 years.

Risk Factors

The initiating factor in hepatorenal syndrome is always some kind of liver disease. This could be everything ranging from hepatitis (from viruses like Hepatitis B or C, drugs, autoimmune disease, etc), to tumors in the liver, to cirrhosis, or even the most dreaded form of liver disease associated with rapid decline in liver function, called fulminant liver failure. All of these conditions can induce kidney disease and kidney failure of varying levels of severity in the hepatorenal patient. 

However, there are some clearly identified and specific risk factors that significantly increase the chances of someone developing kidney failure because of liver disease.

  • Infection of the abdominal cavity (which can sometimes happen in people with cirrhosis), called spontaneous bacterial peritonitis (SBP) 
  • Bleeding into the gut, which is common in cirrhosis patients from blood vessels that bulge into the esophagus for instance (esophageal varices

Water pills (diuretics like furosemide or spironolactone) that are given to patients with cirrhosis and fluid overload do not precipitate hepatorenal syndrome (although they can hurt the kidneys in other ways).

Disease Progression

The mechanisms by which liver disease creates problems with kidney function are thought to be related to the "diversion" of blood supply away from the kidneys and into the rest of the abdominal cavity organs (the so-called "splanchnic circulation").

One main factor that determines blood supply to any organ is the resistance encountered by blood flowing to that organ. Hence, based on the laws of physics, the narrower a blood vessel, the higher the resistance it would create to the flow of blood.

As an example, imagine if you were trying to pump water through two different garden hoses using an equal amount of pressure (which in a human body is generated by the heart). If both the hoses had lumens which were the same size/caliber, one would expect equal amounts of water to flow through them. Now, what would happen if one of those hoses was significantly wider (larger caliber) than the other? Well, more water will preferentially flow through the wider hose due to less resistance that the water encounters there.

Similarly, in the case of hepatorenal syndrome, widening (dilatation) of certain blood vessels in the abdominal splanchnic circulation diverts blood away from the kidneys (whose blood vessels get constricted). Although this does not necessarily proceed in distinct linear steps, for the sake of understanding, here is how we could map this out:

  1. Step 1- The initial trigger is something called portal hypertension (increase in blood pressure in certain veins that drain blood from stomach, spleen, pancreas, intestines), which is common in advanced liver disease patients. This alters blood flow in abdominal organ circulation by dilating splanchnic blood vessels due to the production of a chemical called "nitric oxide". This is produced by the blood vessels themselves and is the same chemical that scientists tapped into to create medications like Viagra.
  2. Step 2 - While the above blood vessels are dilating (and hence preferentially getting more blood to flow through them), there are blood vessels in the kidneys that start to constrict (thus reducing their blood supply). The detailed mechanisms for this are beyond the scope of this article, but it is thought to be related to the activation of the so-called renin-angiotensin system. 

These blood flow alterations then culminate and produce a relatively rapid decline in the kidney function. 


Diagnosis of hepatorenal syndrome is not a straightforward blood test. It is usually physicians call a diagnosis of exclusion. In other words, one would typically look at the clinical presentation of a liver disease patient presenting with otherwise unexplained kidney failure. The prerequisite for diagnosis would be that the physician will need to exclude that kidney failure is not a result of any other cause (dehydration, the effect of medications that could hurt the kidney like NSAID pain meds, the immune effect of Hepatitis B or C viruses, autoimmune disease, obstruction, etc). Once that condition has been met, we begin by verifying the decline in kidney function by looking at certain clinical features and tests:

  • An elevated level of creatinine in the blood, associated with a reduction in the kidneys filtration rate (GFR)
  • Drop in urine output
  • A low level of sodium present in the urine
  • Kidney ultrasound, which will not necessarily show anything, but could exclude other causes of kidney failure in a patient presumed to have hepatorenal syndrome
  • Testing for blood or protein in the urine. Nonexistent/minimal levels will support the diagnosis of hepatorenal syndrome
  • Response to therapy is also used as a retrospective "surrogate test" for diagnosis. In other words, if kidney function markedly improves after "hydration" (which could involve giving patient intravenous fluids or a protein infusion of albumin), it is less likely to be hepatorenal syndrome. In fact, resistance to these conservative therapies will usually spark suspicion about hepatorenal syndrome being present

Even diagnosing kidney failure might not always be straightforward in the patient with advanced liver disease or cirrhosis. This is because the most common test that we depend on to assess kidney function, the serum creatinine level, might not elevate too much in cirrhosis patients in the first place. Therefore, just looking at a serum creatinine level could mislead the diagnostician since it will lead to underestimation of the severity of kidney failure. Therefore, other tests like 24-hour urine creatinine clearance might be necessary to support or refute the level of kidney failure.


Once the diagnosis is confirmed using the above criteria, physicians will classify hepatorenal syndrome into Type-I or Type-II. The difference lies in the severity and the course of the illness. Type I is the more severe kind, associated with a rapid and profound (over 50%) decline in kidney function in less than 2 weeks. 


Now that we understand that hepatorenal syndrome is set off by liver disease (with portal hypertension being the agent provocateur), it's easy to appreciate why treating underlying liver disease is a top priority and the crux of treatment. Unfortunately, that is not always possible. In fact, there might be entities for which no treatment exists or, as in the case of fulminant liver failure, where treatment (other than liver transplantation) might not even work. Finally, there is the factor of time. Especially in Type-I HRS. Hence, while the liver disease might be treatable, it may not be possible to wait for its treatment in a patient with rapidly failing kidneys. In that case, medications and dialysis become necessary. Here are a few choices that we have:

  • In recent years, there has been some good evidence about the role of a new medication called terlipressin. Unfortunately, it's not readily available in the United States, although its use is recommended in most of the world for hepatorenal syndrome treatment. What we get by here, then, is either a medication called norepinephrine (a common medication used in the ICU to raise blood pressure in people with excessively low blood pressure from shock), as well as a "cocktail regimen" that involves 3 drugs, called octreotide, midodrine and albumin (the major protein present in blood). 
  • If these medications don't work, an interventional procedure called TIPS (transjugular intrahepatic portosystemic shunt) placement might be beneficial, although that comes with its own set of problems.
  • Finally, if everything fails and the kidneys do not recover, dialysis might be necessary as a "bridge therapy" until the liver disease can be addressed definitively.

Typically, if medications described above do not work within two weeks, treatment might be considered futile and the risk of death goes up drastically.


It depends. If the patient has a known liver disease with complications that are recognized precipitants (as described above in the section on high-risk patients) of hepatorenal syndrome, certain preventive therapies might work. For instance, patients with cirrhosis and fluid in the abdomen (called ascites), might benefit from an antibiotic called norfloxacin. Patients might benefit from intravenous repletion of albumin as well.

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By Veeraish Chauhan, MD
Veeraish Chauhan, MD, FACP, FASN, is a board-certified nephrologist who treats patients with kidney diseases and related conditions.