Treatments for primary sclerosing cholangitis focus on managing complications and monitoring liver damage. Many medications have been studied in people with primary sclerosing cholangitis, but so far none have been found to slow or reverse the liver damage associated with this disease.
Treatment for itching
- Bile acid sequestrants. Medications that bind to bile acids — the substances thought to cause itching in liver disease — are the first line treatment for itching in primary sclerosing cholangitis.
- Antibiotics. If you have trouble tolerating a bile acid-binding drug or if it doesn't help, your doctor may prescribe rifampin (Rifadin, Rimactane, others), an antibacterial drug. Exactly how rifampin reduces itching is unknown, but it may block the brain's response to itch-inducing chemicals in your circulation.
Antihistamines. This type of medication may help reduce mild itching caused by primary sclerosing cholangitis. Whether these medications are effective for this condition is unknown.
Antihistamines may worsen the liver disease symptoms of dry eyes and dry mouth. On the other hand, antihistamines can help with sleep if itching keeps you awake.
- Opioid antagonists. Itching related to liver disease may also respond to opioid antagonist drugs, such as naltrexone. Like rifampin, these drugs seem to reduce the itch sensation by acting on your brain.
- Ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA). Also known as ursodiol, UDCA is a naturally occurring bile acid that may help relieve itching symptoms caused by liver disease by increasing the absorbability of bile.
Treatment for infections
Bile that backs up in narrowed or blocked ducts causes frequent bacterial infections. To prevent and treat these infections, people with primary sclerosing cholangitis may take repeated courses of antibiotics or continue taking antibiotics for long periods.
Before any procedure that could cause an infection, such as an endoscopic procedure or abdominal surgery, you'll also need to take antibiotics.
Primary sclerosing cholangitis makes it difficult for your body to absorb certain vitamins. Even though you may eat a healthy diet, you may find that you can't get all the nutrients you need.
Your doctor may recommend vitamin supplements that you take as tablets or that you receive as an infusion through a vein in your arm. If the disease weakens your bones, you may take calcium and vitamin D supplements as well.
Treatment for bile duct blockages
Blockages that occur in your bile ducts may be due to disease progression but can be a sign of cancer of the bile duct. Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) can help determine the cause, and bile duct blockage can be treated with:
- Balloon dilation. This procedure can open blockages in the larger bile ducts outside the liver. In balloon dilation, your doctor runs a slender tube with an inflatable balloon at its tip (balloon catheter) through an endoscope and into a blocked bile duct. Once the balloon catheter is in place, the balloon is inflated.
- Stent placement. In this procedure, your doctor uses an endoscope and attached instruments to place a small plastic tube called a stent in a blocked bile duct to hold the duct open.
A liver transplant is the only treatment known to cure primary sclerosing cholangitis. During a liver transplant, surgeons remove your diseased liver and replace it with a healthy liver from a donor.
A liver transplant is reserved for people with liver failure or other severe complications of primary sclerosing cholangitis. Though uncommon, it's possible for primary sclerosing cholangitis to recur after a liver transplant.
No alternative medicine treatments have been found to treat primary sclerosing cholangitis. But some complementary and alternative therapies may help you cope with the signs and symptoms of the disease. Talk to your doctor about your options.
Fatigue is common in people with primary sclerosing cholangitis. While doctors can treat some factors that may contribute to fatigue, your signs and symptoms may still persist. You might find relief with complementary and alternative treatments that have shown some benefit for fatigue, such as:
- Exercise, such as walking 30 minutes most days of the week
- Spending time with friends and family
- Stress management techniques, such as meditation and relaxation exercises