One of the largest organs in the human body, and certainly one of the most important, the liver performs over five hundred functions vital to survival and good health. It stores vitamins, sugars and fats. It builds, regulates and maintains necessary body chemicals, and it removes waste products from the blood. The liver also breaks down harmful substances such as toxins. At any given moment, thirteen percent of your blood supply is moving through this important organ.
The liver is a durable organ; it’s the only one in the human body that is capable of regenerating itself. It can continue to function after three fourths of it has been destroyed. It’s also well protected, nestled behind the lower right ribs. However, certain disease and medical conditions can severely compromise the organ’s ability to perform its essential duties. Damage to the liver, from hepatitis, cirrhosis or cancer for example, can lead to life-threatening conditions.
Symptoms of Liver Problems
Symptoms vary, depending on the actual disease. Most people are familiar with infant jaundice, a yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes in newborns. Bilirubin is a pigment created as the liver processes waste products, and is usually excreted. Excess levels of bilirubin in the bloodstream cause infant jaundice. While in the newborn the condition usually resolves itself without any need for treatment, jaundice in an adult indicates a serious medical problem.
Symptoms of liver problems are not generally well known, and are understandably associated with other conditions. Symptoms include:
lack of appetite
vomiting (including vomiting blood)
light-colored bowel movements
black or bloody bowel movements
sudden weight changes
swelling or pain in the abdomen.
Your doctor may order a number of blood tests if he suspects liver damage. These tests determine the amount of enzymes, proteins, and chemicals in the blood.
Albumin: Albumin is the main protein produced by the liver. Low levels of albumin indicate that something is inhibiting the protein’s production.
Hemoglobin: Hemoglobin is a measure of the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. Liver disease and other chronic disorders can lead to low hemoglobin levels, which is a sign of anemia.
Bilirubin: Excess bilirubin causes jaundice, a condition that can result from several different medical conditions. Two possible tests are available. Total bilirubin counts all bilirubin in the bloodstream, while direct bilirubin only counts the amount that has been processed by the liver.
GGT Test: GGT (gamma-glutamyl transpeptidase) is an enzyme that plays a role in the metabolism of amino acids in the bile ducts, liver and kidneys.
AST, ALT and ALP Tests: AST and ALT are enzymes that are elevated by the organ damage found in hepatitis, for example. Elevation of the ALP enzyme, which may also accompany hepatitis, suggests another type of organ damage causing blockage of bile flow as is seen in primary biliary cirrhosis. Doctors use these enzyme values to aid in the diagnostic procedure.
Terms You Should Know. Your doctor may use the following terms to describe certain conditions. Some of these terms are conditions in themselves, while others are complications of primary conditions. All are serious and require medical intervention. Without medical attention, the consequences can be fatal.
Ascites: the buildup of unnecessary fluid in the abdomen (the peritoneal cavity). It is often a symptom of cirrhosis.
Hepatic Encephalopathy: damage to the brain or nervous system caused by excess amounts of ammonia in the blood that result from liver disorders. Symptoms can include dementia, confusion, severe mood changes and even coma.
Hepatomegaly: enlargement of the liver. Hepatomegaly can occur as a result of heart failure, cancer, alcohol or infection. In severe cases of hepatomegaly, the liver can easily be felt several inches below the rib cage.
Portal Hypertension: often a result of cirrhosis, portal hypertension occurs when blood flow into the liver, through the portal vein, is compromised. As the blood flow is constricted, blood pressure in the vein rises. Esophageal varices may form as a result: they are abnormally dilated veins in the esophagus that are at risk for life-threatening bleeding.