Ammonia Levels and Hepatic Encephalopathy in Patients with Known Chronic Liver Disease

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Abstract

The “Things We Do for No Reason” series reviews practices which have become common parts of hospital care but which may provide little value to our patients. Practices reviewed in the TWDFNR series do not represent “black and white” conclusions or clinical practice standards, but are meant as a starting place for research and active discussions among hospitalists and patients. We invite you to be part of that discussion.

Ammonia is predominantly generated in the gut by intestinal bacteria and enzymes and detoxified primarily in the liver. Since the 1930s, ammonia has been identified as the principal culprit in hepatic encephalopathy (HE). Many physicians utilize serum ammonia to diagnose, assess severity, and determine the resolution of HE in patients with chronic liver disease (CLD) despite research showing that ammonia levels are unhelpful in all of these clinical circumstances. HE in patients with CLD is a clinical diagnosis of exclusion that should not be based on ammonia levels.

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