The liver is the second largest organ in the human body which is present on the right side of the abdomen. It is a reddish-brown organ with a rubbery texture and weighs around 3 pounds. The liver is protected against external injuries by a bony rib cage. It is in the shape of a triangle and consists of 2 lobes. The right lobe is larger than the left lobe and both lobes are separated by a band of tissue that keeps it connected to the diaphragm.
A system of tubes called the biliary tree that runs through the liver collects bile and drains it into the gallbladder or the intestine. Bile is an important digestive juice secreted by the liver. Other important components of the liver include the intrahepatic ducts that are located inside the liver and extrahepatic ducts that are on the outside.
Anatomically, the liver is positioned below the gallbladder along with parts of the pancreas and intestines. All these organs work in complete coordination to digest, absorb and process food. The liver also filters the blood from the digestive tract before it is passed to the rest of the body.
The liver plays a key role in digestion and detoxification. It produces chemicals that are important for the digestion of various foods ingested through the mouth. It also breaks down unwanted compounds and detoxes the body. The liver also acts as a storage unit by storing fats that can be utilized during the phases of starvation.
Some of the key functions of the liver are as follows:
A healthy liver is important to support certain functions like digestion and detoxification. The liver can be damaged due to excessive alcohol consumption or an unhealthy lifestyle. Fatty liver, cirrhosis, and hepatitis are some of the most common liver diseases that need medical treatment.
Excessive alcohol consumption increases the risk of cholesterol and triglycerides. Fatty liver disease is the accumulation of these compounds in the liver but is not related to alcohol abuse. Fatty liver disease is also known as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH).
Regular consumption of alcohol can result in scarring of the liver. The liver tissues can harden and lose their function over a period. The damage is irreversible and is considered fatal as it can result in liver failure.
Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver which can be caused by various reasons like infections or viruses. There are various types of hepatitis as shown below:
Some genetic conditions can cause some liver problems as follows:
The human body is supported by an immune system that defends against foreign bodies including bacteria and viruses. In some rare cases, the body’s immune system attacks healthy cells due to various reasons. The attack on healthy liver tissue can result in inflammation and scarring of the tissue. Autoimmune liver condition includes primary biliary cholangitis (PBC), primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC) and autoimmune hepatitis.
Some infections can cause liver disease. Some of the most common infections are caused by toxoplasmosis, cytomegalovirus, adenovirus and Epstein Barr virus.
The liver is a vital organ of the body as it supports several important functions like digestion and conversion of food to energy. It is also crucial to store energy as a fuel to be used during starvation or excessive demand for energy. The liver also acts as a massive filter removing toxic substances from the body. Liver disease or damage to the liver can influence all these functions and can result in serious health issues. Hence it is important to identify the damage early so that necessary steps can be taken to treat the damage. The damage caused by some conditions like cirrhosis is irreversible if it is not identified early but most of the conditions can be managed with early diagnosis.
The symptoms may not be visible for years as the hepatitis virus may stay dormant in the body. It may manifest as flu-like symptoms initially which can gradually emerge with the following signs:
There will be no signs in the early stages of fatty liver disease but some patients may complain of pain on the right side of the abdomen. As the disease progresses, the disease can cause fever, jaundice along with nausea and vomiting.
Patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease do not show any symptoms in the early stages. As the disease progresses they may show the following symptoms:
Early symptoms of this condition include fatigue and itchy skin but as the disease progresses it may cause the following:
The liver breaks down all the food that passes through the body. It acts like a giant filter removing toxins from the body and protecting healthy human cells from the damage. It performs this task through the following mechanism:
In extreme cases of liver injury or liver damage, the system gets loaded with toxins resulting in health issues. The liver has the responsibility to break down or convert drugs, alcohol to components suitable for the food. Overloading the liver with large quantities of alcohol, fried foods, drugs, etc., impacts the cleaning process.
Several natural food sources are available to detoxify the liver. They stimulate the liver to expel toxins from the body. Some ideal food sources are provided below:
Understanding the health of the liver regularly is important to prevent liver problems or avoid irreversible damage. Your doctor may recommend certain liver function tests or blood tests to understand the health of the liver. These tests evaluate the level of enzymes and proteins in the blood. The objective is to understand the liver’s capability of producing protein and clearing bilirubin or test the levels of enzymes in the blood. Liver function tests are used to measure the following:
If left untreated liver diseases can cause deterioration of liver function and permanent damage. Non-surgical treatment may not be able to reverse the underlying liver damage but may offer pain relief and reduce discomfort.
You doctor may recommend some lifestyle changes and diet modification to manage your cholesterol levels. You may be asked to reduce alcohol intake and maintain a healthy weight. You should also cut back on fat and sugar consumption and switch to fiber diet.
Your doctor may recommend some of the following medicines based on the severity of the condition.
In extreme cases, your doctor may recommend surgery like liver transplantation surgery.
Liver failure is a life-threatening condition and will need immediate medical attention. The most common symptoms of liver failure include nausea, loss of appetite, fatigue, and diarrhea. Severe symptoms may include bleeding, yellow discoloration of skin and eyes (jaundice), swelling of the abdomen with associated pain and discomfort, and confused state of mind (hepatic encephalopathy).
The two types of liver failure are “acute liver failure” and “chronic liver failure”. Acute liver failure is usually asymptomatic and may be caused due to drug overdose. Chronic liver failure is characterized by inflammation and scarring of the liver and is usually a long-term disease caused by heavy alcohol consumption.
Liver failure is diagnosed based on the symptoms, physical examination findings, and diagnostic tests including blood tests, radiological studies, and liver biopsy.
Treatment varies depending on the severity of the disease and underlying medical conditions.
Tips to prevent hepatic failure:
It’s hard to diagnose liver failure and the condition requires urgent medical care. Understanding the various stages of liver disease helps to make better and early treatment choices.
Liver inflammation is an early sign of liver disease and is usually asymptomatic. If untreated, the inflamed liver may become hard and cause health problems.
Fibrosis refers to the scarring of the inflamed liver. In this stage, the normal functioning of the liver is impaired. Fibrosis causes no symptoms and may progress to cirrhosis if left untreated.
In this stage, the liver becomes inflamed, scarred and damaged and loses its ability to function due to the reduced blood supply. Patients with cirrhosis may experience symptoms of liver disease.
End-stage liver disease (ESLD) is an advanced case of cirrhosis in which the liver fails to function normally. The condition is irreversible and will need treatment. Complications include ascites and hepatic encephalopathy. A liver transplant may be needed in severe cases of ESLD.
In some cases, the liver cells may become abnormal and grow out of control causing cancer. Risk factors of liver cancer include cirrhosis, hepatitis B, and can occur in any stage of liver disease. Signs and symptoms associated with liver cancer include:
Treatment of liver cancer varies depending on the tumor size/location, scar tissue, liver function and may include hepatectomy, liver transplant, ablation, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapy, embolization, and chemoembolization.
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