Background and methods: We compared propranolol therapy and endoscopic ligation for the primary prevention of bleeding from esophageal varices. This prospective, controlled trial included consecutive eligible patients who had large varices (>5 mm in diameter) that were at high risk for bleeding. The patients were assigned to either propranolol therapy, at a dose sufficient to decrease the base-line heart rate by 25 percent, or variceal ligation, to be performed weekly until the varices were obliterated or so reduced in size that it was not possible to continue treatment.
Results: Of the 89 patients, 82 of whom had cirrhosis of the liver, 44 received propranolol and 45 underwent variceal ligation. The mean (+/-SD) duration of follow-up in each group was 14+/-9 and 13+/-10 months, respectively. The mean time required to achieve an adequate reduction in the heart rate was 2.5+/-1.7 days; the mean number of sessions needed to complete variceal ligation was 3.2+/-1.1. After 18 months, the actuarial probability of bleeding was 43 percent in the propranolol group and 15 percent in the ligation group (P=0.04). Twelve patients in the propranolol group and four in the ligation group had bleeding. Three of the four in the ligation group had bleeding before their varices had been obliterated. Nine patients in the ligation group had recurrent varices, a mean of 3.7 months after the initial treatment. Five patients in each group died; bleeding from the varices was the cause of death of four patients in the propranolol group and of three in the ligation group. There were no serious complications of variceal ligation; in the propranolol group, treatment was stopped in two patients because of side effects.
Conclusions: In patients with high-risk esophageal varices, endoscopic ligation of the varices is safe and more effective than propranolol for the primary prevention of variceal bleeding.