Portal vein thrombosis (PVT) may occur in liver cirrhosis patients. Malignant PVT is a common complication in cirrhotic patients with concomitant hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) and, in some cases, it may be even the initial sign of an undetected HCC. Detection of malignant PVT in a patient with liver cirrhosis heavily affects the therapeutic strategy. Gray-scale ultrasound (US) is widely unreliable for differentiating benign and malignant thrombi. Although effective for this differential diagnosis, fine-needle biopsy remains an invasive technique. Sensitivity of color-doppler US in detection of malignant thrombi is highly dependent on the size of the thrombus. Contrast-enhanced computed tomography (CT) and contrast-enhanced magnetic resonance (MRI) can be useful to assess the nature of portal thrombus, while limited data are currently available about the role of positron emission tomography (PET) and PET-CT. In contrast with CT, MRI, PET, and PET-CT, contrast-enhanced ultrasound (CEUS) is a fast, effective, well tolerated and cheap technique, that can be performed even in the same session in which the thrombus has been detected. CEUS can be performed bedside and can be available also in transplanted patients. Moreover, CT and MRI only yield a snapshot analysis during contrast diffusion, while CEUS allows for a continuous real-time imaging of the microcirculation that lasts several minutes, so that the whole arterial phase and the late parenchymal phase of the contrast diffusion can be analyzed continuously by real-time US scanning. Continuous real-time monitoring of contrast diffusion entails an easy detection of thrombus maximum enhancement. Moreover, continuous quantitative analyses of enhancement (wash in - wash out studies) by CEUS during contrast diffusion is nowadays available in most CEUS machines, thus giving a more sophisticated and accurate evaluation of the contrast distribution and an increased confidence in diagnosis in difficult cases. In conclusion, CEUS is a very reliable technique with a high intrinsic sensitivity for portal vein patency assessment. More expensive and sophisticated techniques (i.e., CT, MRI, PET, and PET-CT) should only be indicated in undetermined cases at CEUS.
Keywords: Benign thrombosis; Contrast-enhanced ultrasound; Hepatocellular carcinoma; Malignant thrombosis; Portal vein thrombosis.