The liver is one of the most essential organs in the body, and it is located toward the top part of the abdomen, right below the diaphragm. The liver has numerous functions, from breaking down fats to iron storage, so when you experience liver pain, it can be a cause for concern. One good piece of news about the liver is that it is likely the most versatile organ in the body, and not just by way of functionality. Your liver can be moderately, even critically ill - and bounce back in many situations. However, liver pain can be indicative of serious conditions, such as cirrhosis (a condition the liver cannot bounce back from) or liver cancer. Read on to learn more about liver pain and liver disease, how to manage pain or disease if you’re having symptoms, and how to prevent liver disease and associated problems.
Liver pain and liver disease are two distinct things, although liver disease can be accompanied by pain (and in most cases, will be). There are many different underlying causes of liver diseases, the most common of which is connected to excessive alcohol consumption. One night of heavy drinking is unlikely to cause liver pain. It would more likely cause conditions such as headache or nausea. Liver problems as they relate to alcohol are usually the result of excessive consumption after years of drinking. However, not all liver problems are tied to ethanol. Some (like nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, or NAFLD) are genetic.
You should never ignore liver pain. It’s not something with a benign cause, such as stomach cramping when you have the stomach flu or a headache when you have a cold. If you are experiencing distinct pain in the liver area, you should seek help from a physician immediately. Many times, symptoms of liver disease do not present until the disease has already advanced, so it’s imperative to be checked out right away.
It is important to note that liver pain is often mistaken for right shoulder pain or back pain. It can be dull and throbbing, or it can be sharp and stabbing. If you are unsure, keep in mind that the liver is directly below the diaphragm on top of the stomach.
Beyond pain, there are other telltale markers of liver disease you should be on the lookout for so that you can let your healthcare provider know. Some of these include:
While many gastrointestinal issues can be a bit ambiguous and could mean many things, several of these symptoms point directly to liver problems, especially jaundice, pale stools, and a distended stomach. If you have liver or abdominal pain along with any of these symptoms, you should see your physician immediately.
Any type of liver pain is likely going to be linked to a type of liver disease. Keep in mind that the liver can recover tremendously from many different types of conditions. The most common cause is simply excessive alcohol consumption, which is a nonspecific description of liver irritation and disease. This could describe fatty liver or high liver enzymes (both of which a patient can recover from following alcohol cessation) or other liver problems. This does describe cirrhosis, which is scarring of the liver. While alcohol is the number one reason for cirrhosis, this condition is an irreversible and deadly liver disease that the liver cannot recover from, even after ethanol cessation. So, when the term “excessive alcohol consumption” is used, this refers to minor liver disease or minor liver damage that is easily curable with lifestyle changes.
Some of the most common causes of liver disease include:
There may also be less common causes, such as a liver abscess or Budd-Chiari syndrome.
Just as in other areas of the body, an abscess can form in the liver. An abscess, which is a fluid-filled pocket of pus, may contain parasites, bacteria, or some other type of infection. Imaging tests would be conducted in order to diagnose a liver abscess, likely after blood tests were taken. Most often, liver disease is first noted by high liver enzymes found during complete blood count (CBC) tests or other types of lab tests. If high enzymes weren’t found (a marker for most types of liver disease), your doctor would likely order a CT scan, ultrasound, or MRI to investigate further, which would discover the abscess. Just like in other parts of the body, the treatment for most abscesses would be antibiotics.
Budd-Chiari syndrome is a rare liver disease entirely unrelated to alcohol. In fact, it’s more related to those who have blood that clots more easily. Pregnant women and those with chronic inflammatory disease are more at risk, but it remains a rare disease. In this syndrome, blood flow is cut off to the liver by blood clots, which causes blood to back up into the liver. If undetected, this could even cause scarring and cirrhosis. However, if discovered, blood thinners can help alleviate the problem.
Hepatitis is often associated with being a sexually transmitted disease (STD), but there are many types of hepatitis, all of which inflames the liver. Hepatitis C is the type that is often transmitted through needles or bodily fluids. Hepatitis A can be transmitted through contaminated food, while B can also be transmitted through bodily fluids. There are also less common types, such as hepatitis D or E. Depending on the type, hepatitis can be acute and short-term, or it can be a long0term disease that warrants lifelong medical attention and care. If you experience any type of liver pain or any other type of liver-related symptoms, such as jaundice, it’s wise to be evaluated by your physician for hepatitis types.
Cirrhosis is scarring of the liver. It is most often caused by excessive alcohol consumption, although it can occasionally be caused by other liver diseases. Instead of creating healthy tissue, over time, all healthy tissue is eventually covered by scarred tissue, and the liver is unable to function properly. Many other types of liver disease are reversible (like fatty liver) or manageable (like hepatitis). However, cirrhosis is not. Once the liver has been brought to this stage, all that can be managed are the symptoms. Cirrhosis, typically without fail, leads to liver failure.
There are a few things you can do to prevent liver disease. Science disagrees slightly on daily and weekly drinking levels between men and women. However, generally speaking, the daily level is roughly two drinks for women and three drinks for men to avoid liver problems and to promote good liver function. Eating a healthy diet and getting plenty of exercise is also vital to have a healthy liver. In addition to alcohol consumption, obesity has been tied to liver disease as well. If you need more information on liver pain or liver disease or would like to be seen or evaluated by a physician, book an appointment with Carolina Digestive Health Associates. We have over 12 locations to provide you flexibility and individualized care.