Understanding the Basics of Ascites

Definition, Diagnosis, and Treatment of Ascites

A woman suffering from abdominal pain.
A woman suffering from abdominal pain. PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou/Getty Images

Ascites, pronounced ah-sy-tees, is the medical term describing the abnormal accumulation of fluid in the abdomen. While ascites is most commonly caused by cirrhosis, cancer may also be a cause of ascites. Learn what ascites feels like, how its diagnosed, and how doctors treat it.

What are the Medical Causes of Ascites?

There are benign or non-cancerous conditions that can cause ascites with liver failure, or cirrhosis, being the most common one.

Other examples of non-cancerous causes include heart failure, infection, and pancreatitis.

In about 10 percent of cases, ascites is caused by cancer, according to an older study in the New England Journal of Medicine. Types of cancer that cause ascites include ovarian, colon, pancreatic, and uterine cancer. Lymphoma, lung cancer, and breast cancer may also spread to the abdomen, causing ascites.

In order to differentiate between benign versus malignant or cancerous ascites, a doctor will perform a procedure called a paracentesis. In this procedure, a needle is inserted into the abdomen and a small fluid sample is removed. The fluid sample is then examined under a microscope. Certain characteristics of the fluid, like the presence of cancer cells, can help determine the cause of the ascites.

What Does Ascites Feel Like?

While mild ascites may cause no symptoms, more advanced ascites can become uncomfortable, creating a bloated appearance to the abdomen.

Common symptoms of more advanced ascites include:

  • abdominal pain
  • shortness of breath because the pressure of the fluid compresses the diaphragm
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • loss of appetite

How is Ascites Treated?

The treatment of ascites depends on the severity of the ascites and is geared towards alleviating a person's symptoms and making them more comfortable.

Therapies include salt restricted diets, diuretics, and a therapeutic paracentesis, in which a large volume of fluid is removed from the abdomen. Its not uncommon for a person with ascites to need regular paracentesis to remove the fluid. The good news is that the procedure is relatively low risk and effective.

That being said, if a person's ascites cannot be controlled well with these traditional therapies, a shunt may be placed surgically — although this procedure is higher risk and not commonly done.

In the case of malignant ascites, a person's doctor may consider cytoreductive surgery and chemotherapy that is administered directly into the abdomen — called direct intraperitoneal chemotherapy. This is only considered for certain patients and requires a careful discussion with a person's doctors to weight the potential risks and benefits.

Sources:

Runyon BA. Care of patients with ascites. N Eng J Med. 1994 Feb 3;330(5):337-42.

Sangisetty SL & Miner TJ. Malignant ascites: A review of prognostic factors, pathophysiology and therapeutic measures. World J Gastrointes Surg. 2012 Apr 27;4(4):87-95.

DISCLAIMER: The information in this site is for educational purposes only. It should not be used as a substitute for personal care by a licensed physician. Please see your doctor for diagnosis and treatment of any concerning symptoms or medical condition.

Continue Reading