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What is a Liver Transplant?

Several types of liver disease: Hepatic steatosis (fatty liver disease), fibrosis, and cirrhosis.
A patient is usually given general anesthesia for a liver transplant.
A liver transplant is a medical procedure that's used to treat patients with a failing or damaged liver.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 03 April 2014
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A liver transplant is a surgical procedure in which a liver is removed from a donor and placed into someone else's body. Typically, the livers used in liver transplants come from people who have died and donated their organs. It is also possible to transplant part of a liver from a living person, as sections of the liver are capable of regrowing, a trait which makes the liver a rather unique organ. The survival rate for patients after liver transplant is about 75% over five years, and 60% over 15 years.

This medical procedure is used to replace a failing or severely damaged liver. Most commonly, liver transplants are used for patients who have developed severe cirrhosis as a result of chronic infection or lifestyle. Liver cancer, hemochromatosis, and diseases which affect the bile ducts can also lead to a need for a liver transplant.

Once the need for a transplant is identified, the patient is placed on a waiting list for donor livers, and he or she undergoes periodic testing to determine the level of healthy liver function. Patients can avoid the waiting list by receiving a directed donation from the family member of someone who has died with viable organs, or by receiving a living donation from a friend, family member, or altruistic stranger. Transplant candidates must take immunosuppressive drugs so that their bodies will not attack the transplanted liver after the surgery.

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Like all surgeries, the liver transplant procedure carries risks, especially since the patient's health is usually degraded as a result of reduced liver function. Uncontrolled bleeding, reactions to anesthesia, infection, or rejection of the donated organ are all potential problems. Patients must take medications to prevent rejection for the rest of their lives, and they usually need to undergo testing to check on the health of their livers periodically to make sure that everything is working properly. Patients usually remain hospitalized for around three weeks after the surgery so that their doctors can monitor them, and in the case of a transplant from a living donor, the donor also needs some recovery time to allow his or her liver to regrow.

Receiving a donor liver also requires some lifestyle changes. Because recipients have to take drugs to suppress their immune systems, they are more prone to potential infections, and they have to be careful around people who are sick. Usually a healthy diet must be consumed to support liver health, and the patient may require six months to a year after transplant to reach her or his former activity level. Since the alternative to liver transplant is often death, many patients feel that these risks and lifestyle changes are a reasonable price to pay for a new liver.

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