Emergency sclerotherapy is not better than pharmacological therapy for acute variceal bleeding in cirrhosis

Variceal bleeding in cirrhosis is associated with a high risk of death. Although banding ligation of varices is considered the choice for endoscopic treatment, emergency sclerotherapy is frequently used particularly where ligation is not available or when it is not feasible. However, vasoactive drugs stop bleeding in most patients, and emergency sclerotherapy may carry risks to the patient and is more demanding on the health-care system. All of the identified randomised clinical trials comparing emergency sclerotherapy with vasopressin (+/- intravenous or transdermal nitroglycerin), terlipressin, somatostatin, or octreotide have been reviewed. A total of 17 randomised trials including 1817 patients were included. Sclerotherapy did not appear to be superior to the vasoactive drugs in terms of control of bleeding, number of transfusions, 42-day rebleeding and mortality, or rebleeding and mortality before other elective treatments. However, adverse events were significantly more frequent and severe with sclerotherapy than with vasoactive drugs.

Authors' conclusions: 

We found no convincing evidence to support the use of emergency sclerotherapy for variceal bleeding in cirrhosis as the first, single treatment when compared with vasoactive drugs. Vasoactive drugs may be safe and effective whenever endoscopic therapy is not promptly available and seems to be associated with less adverse events than emergency sclerotherapy. Other meta-analyses and guidelines advocate that combined vasoactive drugs and endoscopic therapy is superior to either intervention alone.

Read the full abstract...

Emergency sclerotherapy is still widely used as a first line therapy for variceal bleeding in patients with cirrhosis, particularly when banding ligation is not available or feasible. However, pharmacological treatment may stop bleeding in the majority of these patients.


To assess the benefits and harms of emergency sclerotherapy versus vasoactive drugs for variceal bleeding in cirrhosis.

Search strategy: 

Search of trials was based on The Cochrane Hepato-Biliary Group Controlled Trials Register, the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) in The Cochrane Library, MEDLINE, EMBASE, and Science Citation Index Expanded through January 2010.

Selection criteria: 

Randomised clinical trials comparing sclerotherapy with vasoactive drugs (vasopressin (with or without nitroglycerin), terlipressin, somatostatin, or octreotide) for acute variceal bleeding in cirrhotic patients.

Data collection and analysis: 

Outcome measures were failure to control bleeding, five-day treatment failure, rebleeding, mortality, number of blood transfusions, and adverse events. Data were analysed by a random-effects model according to the vasoactive treatment. Sensitivity analyses included combined analysis of all the trials irrespective of the vasoactive drug, type of publication, and risk of bias.

Main results: 

Seventeen trials including 1817 patients were identified. Vasoactive drugs were vasopressin (one trial), terlipressin (one trial), somatostatin (five trials), and octreotide (ten trials). No significant differences were found comparing sclerotherapy with each vasoactive drug for any outcome. Combining all the trials irrespective of the vasoactive drug, the risk differences (95% confidence intervals) were failure to control bleeding -0.02 (-0.06 to 0.02), five-day failure rate -0.05 (-0.10 to 0.01), rebleeding 0.01 (-0.03 to 0.05), mortality (17 randomised trials, 1817 patients) -0.02 (-0.06 to 0.02), and transfused blood units (8 randomised trials, 849 patients) (weighted mean difference) -0.24 (-0.54 to 0.07). Adverse events 0.08 (0.03 to 0.14) and serious adverse events 0.05 (0.02 to 0.08) were significantly more frequent with sclerotherapy.