Early Warning Signs of Liver Disease
The liver is the largest single organ, and largest gland, in the human body.
Perhaps because of its central role in so many aspects of metabolism, the liver is vulnerable to a phenomenal number of diseases and disorders. Unfortunately, a lot of damage can happen to the liver before a diagnosis of any of them takes place.
The Importance of the Liver
The liver performs a vital role in the production of proteins that are necessary for blood clotting. It also breaks down old or damaged blood cells and processes them to be removed from the body. When cells throughout the body call for glucose, it is produced in the liver. When there is not enough glucose in the body, the liver will break down fats to produce energy. The liver produces bile, which is necessary for digestion. In fact, the liver is a critical part of all metabolic functions within the body.
The liver is subject to more than 1,000 different chronic and debilitating diseases. When the liver is attacked by viruses like Hepatitis A, B or C, by external poisons like alcohol, drugs or toxins, by genetic disorders or by any of hundreds of other causes (including diabetes), damage occurs. This damage or scarring is referred to as cirrhosis, and it represents an end stage of many liver disorders, even as it contributes to other disorders, like ascites, variceal bleeding and hepatic encephalopathy.
Unlike any other organ in the body, the liver has the ability to regenerate. Damage to the liver can cause new liver tissue to grow and take the place of cirrhotic tissue. However, the rate of growth is often not sufficient to keep up with the rate of damage, so ultimately most liver diseases and disorders are fatal.
Symptoms of Liver Disease
The symptoms of most diseases of the liver may be hard to spot, because they are subtle and may be confused with a number of other health problems. Too frequently liver damage has progressed to a serious stage before diagnosis of the underlying disease is made.
Early symptoms might include unexplained weight loss, chronic fatigue, changes in the stool (becoming either pale or black and tarry), itchy skin, nausea or vomiting or dark urine. More advanced liver disease would include chronic pain in the belly, extreme swelling in the abdomen, swelling in the legs and ankles and a yellowish caste to the skin and eyes (jaundice).
Diagnosis and Treatment of Liver Disease
Blood tests for liver function are often the first attempt at diagnosis. Ultrasound, cat scan and MRI exams may be required to better visualize the liver and note any growths or damage. Biopsy, done with a needle that enters through the skin and into the liver and removes a small plug of tissue, is generally a definitive diagnostic procedure.
The liver is transplantable. Remarkably, only a portion of a donor liver can be transplanted and still gain a successful outcome. The ability to take a portion of the liver from a living donor and transplant it into someone who is facing death from disease has saved tens of thousands of lives.