Liver pain can take several forms. Most people feel it as a dull, throbbing sensation in the upper right abdomen. Liver pain can also feel like a stabbing sensation that takes your breath away. Sometimes this pain is accompanied by swelling, and occasionally people feel radiating liver pain in their back or in their right shoulder blade.
The liver converts food nutrients into products that we need for our bodies to function properly. The liver is also a detoxifying organ. When you feel pain that comes from your liver, it’s a signal that there’s something happening in your body that needs to be addressed.
Possible causes and associated conditions include:
- excessive alcohol consumption
- non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
- Reye syndrome
- liver cancer
Liver disease is not an uncommon condition. According to the American Liver Foundation, an estimated 1 in 10 people are affected by liver disease. Hepatitis, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), and excessive alcohol consumption are the most common causes of liver problems. Liver pain can also indicate cirrhosis, Reye syndrome, liver cancer, and hemochromatosis. Sometimes pain felt in the same general area of the liver is actually caused by issues in the gallbladder, the pancreas, or the kidneys.
We’re still learning more about diseases of the liver, including what triggers them and how to best treat them. But if your pain persists without a diagnosis, you cannot benefit from any of the new research or treatment methods that are available to you. It’s important to work with a doctor to figure out why your liver is hurting.
When your liver is having any kind of problem, there are symptoms that tend to accompany the pain. The liver’s job is to detoxify and help flush out waste and convert food to nutritional products your body needs. If your liver is being affected by any kind of disease, those processes aren’t being done efficiently. That means that your body will react by showing signs of toxicity.
Associated symptoms of liver pain may include:
- yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes
- dark brownish urine
- swelling in the ankles or legs
- itchy skin
- loss of appetite
If you experience liver pain in the morning after a heavy meal or a night of drinking alcohol, drink plenty of water. Try to avoid fatty or heavy foods for a few days, and sit up straight to take pressure off the liver. If the pain persists for more than several hours, you should set up an appointment with your doctor. If you’re experiencing nausea, dizziness, or hallucinations in conjunction with liver pain, you may need emergency care.
Diet and lifestyle changes
The treatment for your liver pain will depend on what’s causing it. Treating your liver disease will probably start with addressing what you eat and drink. The liver is one of the few organs in the body that can repair and regenerate itself. Research on mice liver has shown that a diet too low in protein results in a significant decrease in liver volume, but after adequate protein is added back to the diet, some reversal of this damage to the liver is possible.
Other lifestyle changes, such as losing weight and lowering your cholesterol, are other first lines of defense when it comes to treating the cause of liver pain. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is managed almost exclusively by modifying your diet and exercise routine.
If you experience liver pain, you may be tempted to reach for an over-the-counter painkiller such as acetaminophen. Don’t take it. The liver’s job is to filter out toxins, and taking acetaminophen will only tax the system more, as acetaminophen can hurt the liver. If the problem with your liver is serious, taking painkillers you have at home could trigger a worse reaction.
Once your liver condition has been diagnosed, you will probably be prescribed drugs to manage the condition and lessen your pain. Hepatitis B anti-viral drugs exist for treating chronic disease, such as lamivudine (Epivir) and adefovir (Hepsera). In recent years, researchers have found that several courses of an antiviral called Harvoni (ledipasvir/sofosbuvir) can make the hepatitis C virus undetectable in the bloodstream.
Managing liver cancer
If your liver pain is caused by liver cancer, your doctor will advise you how best to stop the spread of your cancer. You will most likely need a referral to an oncologist and speedy treatment, as depending on the type, cancer in the liver could be aggressive and grow quickly.
In some cases, the damage to the liver from hepatitis, acetaminophen or other toxin exposure, cancer, or alcohol will be impossible to reverse. In those cases, your doctor may recommend a liver transplant as your best treatment option.
When you visit your doctor about your liver pain, he or she will do a visual inspection of your abdomen. Your doctor will check for inflammation in the liver area and ask you several questions about your lifestyle and the nature of your pain. You will probably need a blood test to check if your liver is functioning properly.
Ultrasonography, MRI, or a CT scan may be performed to check for tumors or cysts on your liver. You may also have a test called a stereotactic liver biopsy, during which a long, thin needle removes a small piece of tissue from your liver with the help of radiographic imaging guidance. Transient elastography is a special kind of ultrasound testing that checks the stiffness of your liver for scarring or fibrosis. Your doctor may refer you to a specialist, either a gastroenterologist or hepatologist, for further evaluation.
Liver disease isn’t going away anytime soon, and certain conditions even appear to be on the rise. But the outlook for people diagnosed with liver disease is certainly not as dire as it once was. By getting proper medical care, modifying your diet and lifestyle, and making sure that you look after your body well, most liver disease can be effectively managed, if not cured completely.
Liver pain often signals a serious problem in your body. It isn’t something to be ignored or waited out. Speak to your doctor about your liver pain to determine the appropriate course of action.