Esophageal varices are enlarged veins that arise in the lower esophagus in patients with cirrhosis of the liver and other less common conditions. They resemble varicose veins of the legs.
Blood from the gastrointestinal tract normally flows through the liver. Scarring of the liver from cirrhosis prohibits normal blood flow and increases the pressure in the blood vessels. The veins swell, producing varices.
Many patients with esophageal varices will have no symptoms. Severe bleeding can occur if the varices rupture. This often results in vomiting large quantities of blood and passing bloody bowel movements.
All patients with cirrhosis of the liver should undergo periodic endoscopy to look for varices.
If varices are present, medication can be used to lower the blood pressure within the varices to decrease the risk of bleeding. Active bleeding from varices can be controlled by passing a flexible tube through the mouth into the esophagus to directly visualize the lining of the esophagus (endoscopy) to place rubber bands on the varices.