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The Range of Liver Disorders and Problems

A variety of diseases and conditions can affect the overall capacity of the liver, a vital organ of the body. Conditions such as cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer can cause a lot of damage to the liver. Many other diseases such as hepatitis and primary sclerosing cholangitis can also create problems for the liver.

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 infant jaundice 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:
  • jaundice
  • lack of appetite
  • vomiting (including vomiting blood)
  • dark-colored urine
  • light-colored stools
  • black or bloody stools
  • nausea
  • diarrhea
  • anemia
  • fatigue
  • sudden weight changes
  • swelling or pain in the abdomen.
Blood Tests
Your doctor may order a number of blood tests if he suspects liver damage. These tests determine the levels 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 its production.

Hemoglobin: Hemoglobin is a measure of the oxygen-carrying pigment in the blood. Liver disease and other chronic disorders can cause low hemoglobin levels, which is a sign of anemia. A regular blood test can track the amount of hemoglobin in the blood stream and, thus, be sufficent to disgnose anemia.

Bilirubin: Excess bilirubin causes jaundice, a condition that can result from several different medical conditions. Two tests are available. Total bilirubin counts all bilirubin in the bloodstream, while direct bilirubin counts only 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. A GGT Test will indicate whether GGT levels are too high in the bllod, which signals liver and bule duct injury.

AST, ALT and ALP Tests: AST and ALT are enzymes that are elevated by organ damage caused by conditions such as hepatitis. Elevation of the ALP enzyme, which may also accompany hepatitis, suggests another type of organ damage that blocks bile flow. Doctors use these enzyme values to aid in diagnosing liver disease.

Terms You Should Know
Your doctor may use the following terms to describe certain conditions or their complications. 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 abuse 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 rsulting in esophageal varices, abnormally dilated veins in the esophagus that increase the risk of life-threatening bleeding. Portal hypertension is often the result of cirrhosis.

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Last modified 20 October 2005
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