18 April 2023

Understanding the cause, symptoms, and diagnosis of liver disease

18 April 2023

Understanding the cause, symptoms, and diagnosis of liver disease

The liver is the body’s largest internal organ. It is well known for its ability to break down toxins and eliminate them from the body. However, the liver also plays an important role in producing most of the proteins found in the blood, regulating blood clotting, manufactures immune factors to help resist infections secreting bile (a key role in digestion), cell protein synthesis, and storage of vitamins and minerals.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, liver disease is the 11th leading cause of premature death in Australia, and more than two in three premature deaths due to liver disease are among males. 

What causes liver disease?

Liver disease is a broad category of conditions ranging from mild inflammation to severe fibrosis and cirrhosis. Cirrhosis most commonly results from long term inflammation due to infection, chronic alcohol consumption, obesity, exposure to certain chemicals or fatty liver disease. Cirrhosis is the most significant risk factor for developing primary liver cancer. 

Around a third of Australians have fatty liver, and alcoholic liver disease is the most common cause of alcohol-induced death in the country. Causes of liver disease include:  

  • Viral infections: such as hepatitis B and hepatitis C   
  • Genetic conditions: some heritable diseases can cause liver injury e.g., haemochromatosis, 1-antitrypsin deficiency 
  • Alcoholic fatty liver disease (AFLD): caused by chronic over consumption of alcohol
  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD): caused by metabolic syndrome, having abnormally high blood cholesterol levels, generally because of poor diet and type 2 diabetes. These factors promote fat storage in the liver which can cause inflammation.
The stages of liver disease

How is liver disease diagnosed?

An informed diagnosis may include diagnostic imaging, interventional (biopsy) and pathology tests. Diagnostic imaging may include ultrasound, Magnetic resonance Imaging (MRI) and computer tomography (CT) scans to diagnose and monitor the progression of liver damage and disease. 

Using MRI to identify liver disease 

An MRI of the liver can identify the structure and condition of the organ, as well as any abnormal growths. It can detect many conditions of the liver and other conditions including hepatitis, hemochromatosis and fatty liver disease. 

As MRI can visualise blood flow within the liver, it can provide information about vascular diseases which may be affecting the organ. MRI scans of the liver can detect both malignant and benign tumours and may be able to differentiate between the two. 

When is a liver MRI required? 

A doctor may request an MRI of the liver to investigate the cause of the following symptoms which can indicate the potential risk of liver disease: 

  • Abnormal liver function on blood test 
  • Enlarged liver 
  • Swelling of the legs and abdomen 
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Nausea 
  • Weakness 
  • Jaundice 
  • Easy bruising 

Can liver disease be reversed?

Early detection and lifestyle changes are key to taking control of health for individuals who have shown early signs of liver damage and those at risk of developing liver disease due to family history or other risk factors.

Liver damage caused by chronic lifestyle factors can be relatively simple to halt and even reversed if detected in the early stages and if lifestyle changes are made and adhered to.

Liver damage is most commonly a result of either Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (AFLD) or Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD). Appropriate diet, weight and exercise are the prime treatments for both AFLD and NAFLD.