The liver is the largest internal organ of the body and one of the central points for most of the biochemical processes that sustains life. It is probably the most versatile organ and responsible for monitoring, regulating and performing vital processes. Read more on liver functions.
Despite this versatility, the liver is also prone to various forms of injury. It is a resilient organ and can compensate for even minor dysfunction. However, any disease process that impacts on large parts of the liver or disrupts its core functions will inadvertently affect many of the other systems in the body.
Disorders of the liver can be broadly encompassed under the term liver disease. While this term may not be descriptive for the type of underlying liver pathology, it highlights a significant disease process that jeopardizes normal functioning of almost every system.
What is liver disease?
Any disease process that affects the liver and disrupts liver function can be labeled as a liver disease. It may be congenital (present since birth) or acquired (occurs during life). Some of the more common liver diseases include cirrhosis, hepatitis, fatty liver disease and liver cancer.
These disease may be due to chemical or mechanical injury, infections, autoimmune causes, genetic causes or metabolic diseases. Some of these liver diseases are more frequently seen with alcohol abuse, which is a global problem, and infections that are water-borne or transmitted sexually.
The more common disorder, hepatitis, is important because it often precedes most liver diseases. Hepatitis is simply an inflammation of the liver but in the chronic setting, it has the potential to lead to more serious complications like liver failure.
Signs and Symptoms of Liver Disease
The clinical presentation of liver disease depends on the type of pathology and extent of the disease process. Jaundice, a yellow discoloration of the skin and mucous membranes, is the most common sign of liver disease. This may be accompanied by other skin symptoms like itching and dryness of the skin. Weight loss, loss of appetite and fatigue are also general signs and symptoms of liver disease that are not specific for liver pathology.
The liver is closely associated with the gastrointestinal and circulatory systems. Therefore liver disease may also present with symptoms that are typical of disturbances in these systems like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, changes in blood pressure and swelling. Liver pain may not present in every case of liver disease and may be either an early symptom often associated with liver inflammation or a late symptom as is seen with liver destruction.
Diagnosing liver disease is dependent on the initial findings of a liver function test (LFT) and complete blood count (CBC). A thorough case taking and proper physical examination may raise concerns about liver disease but this should only be confirmed by assessing the relevant blood tests. Imaging studies like a CT scan, ultrasound or MRI will also play a central role in the diagnosis of certain types of liver disease. Stool and urine tests may also play a part in diagnosing certain types of liver disease.
Treatment for liver diseases depends on type of disease. Treatment may be medical (use of medication) or surgical, however, conservative management may often involve similar measures irrespective of the the type of liver disease. This includes :
- Avoiding alcohol intake or at least minimizing it.
- Eating a balanced meal with simple foods.
- Controlling the use of prescription medication.
- Discontinuing practices that may jeopardize the health of the liver.
Article reviewed by Dr. Greg. Last updated on March 11, 2011