A range of disorders can affect your liver and pancreas. Various conditions can make it difficult for these organs to perform the essential tasks your body needs to digest food, absorb nutrients, and handle toxins.
Some liver and pancreas conditions are acute and can be treated and resolved quickly. Other disorders are chronic and will need to be managed with medication and lifestyle adjustments.
The treatments used will depend on the exact condition and its severity.
This article reviews the types of disorders that can affect the liver and pancreas, along with their symptoms and treatments.
What is the function of the liver and pancreas?
Your liver and pancreas help your body with hundreds of vital daily functions. Your liver produces bile that helps your body digest food. It also detoxifies your body and plays a large role in your metabolism.
Your pancreas makes insulin and other hormones your body needs to absorb and use nutrients correctly. Also, it secretes pancreatic juices. These juices contain digestive enzymes that your small intestine needs to digest and absorb food.
Disorders of the pancreas and liver make it difficult for your body to process food, handle waste, and function properly. There is a wide range of conditions that can affect these organs. Common conditions are listed below.
Disorders of the liver
Common liver disorders include:
- Fatty liver disease: Fatty liver disease happens when too much fat builds up in and around your liver. This interferes with the liver’s function and processes. It can be caused by obesity, alcohol, and various other causes.
- Hepatitis: Hepatitis occurs due to liver swelling. It can be either chronic or acute. Some forms of hepatitis, such as hepatitis C, are caused by an infection. Others, such as autoimmune hepatitis, are not.
- Cirrhosis: Cirrhosis is a liver condition caused by long-term liver damage and scarring. It is often the result of heavy alcohol use.
- Liver cancer:Liver cancer is a tumor growth on the liver. This cancer can be aggressive and difficult to treat.
- Liver failure: Liver failure happens when your liver is too damaged to function properly. This can result from untreated fatty liver disease, heavy alcohol use, infection, or medication overdose.
Disorders of the pancreas
Common conditions that affect the pancreas include:
- Pancreatitis: Pancreatitis is an
inflammation of the pancreas. It can be acute, chronic, or hereditary.
- Pancreatic cyst: A pancreatic cyst is a noncancerous growth on the ducts that carry pancreatic juices between the pancreas and small intestine.
- Pancreatic cancer:Pancreatic cancer is a tumorous growth on the pancreas. This cancer can be difficult to treat.
- Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI): EPI is a condition that causes your pancreas to not make enough digestive enzymes. This makes it difficult for your body to digest food.
Because your liver and pancreas affect how you process food, disorders of the pancreas and liver can cause similar symptoms. For instance, you might experience nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, and swelling if you have a condition that affects either organ. You can see more specific symptoms below.
Symptoms of a liver disorder
Common symptoms of liver conditions include:
- dark-colored urine
- pale-colored bowel movements
- loss of appetite
- unintentional weight loss
- swollen abdomen
- stomach pain
- swollen hands and feet
Symptoms of a pancreas disorder
Symptoms of pancreas conditions include:
- upper abdominal pain
- abdominal swelling
- back pain
- rapid heart rate
- pain that gets worse after you eat
When to contact a doctor
It’s important to note that you might not experience any symptoms. It’s common for early stages of cancer, and conditions such as fatty liver disease, to cause no symptoms.
Symptoms you have might be mild and easily mistaken for a stomach bug or other minor condition. That’s why it’s always a good idea to see if you have any symptoms that might be signs of a liver or pancreas condition, especially if you’ve had them for more than a week or two.
Many factors can cause disorders of the liver and pancreas. Some conditions are the result of infections, while other others are genetic. However, some risk factors make liver and pancreas problems more likely. These include:
- a history of heavy alcohol use
- a diet high in cholesterol and fats
- a family history of liver and pancreas conditions
- cystic fibrosis and other metabolic conditions
- autoimmune conditions
- taking certain medications
In addition, some liver and pancreas disorders increase your risk for more serious liver and pancreas conditions. For example, pancreatitis increases your risk for pancreatic cancer.
If you’re unsure about your liver and pancreas disorders risk, it’s best to talk with a doctor. They can help you assess your risk and make a plan to address it.
The exact diagnostic process will depend on the disorder your doctor suspects. However, there are some common steps you’ll find during most liver and pancreas disorder testing. These include:
- a review of your medical history and your family medical history
- a physical exam
- bloodwork that includes a pancreatic enzyme and liver panel
- a urine sample
- a stool sample
- a CT scan, MRI, or other imaging tests
- an endoscopic imaging test that provides a closeup view of your pancreas, liver, and bile ducts
- a biopsy to analyze a tissue sample if cancer is suspected
Treatment will depend on the disorder. In many cases, changes to your lifestyle might be the first step. In other cases, you might start with antibiotics or even surgery. You can see some common treatment options below.
- Lifestyle changes: You might be advised to consider healthy lifestyle steps such as reducing your alcohol consumption if you drink, reducing the amount of fat in your diet, increasing your level of physical activity, achieving a moderate weight, or quitting smoking if you smoke. These first steps are especially common with conditions such as fatty liver disease.
- Antibiotics or antivirals: Conditions such as pancreatitis and some types of hepatitis can be treated with antibiotic or antiviral medications. The exact medications you take and how long you take them depend on your condition and its severity.
- Enzymes: Enzyme medication can help you digest food. Doctors sometimes prescribe these enzymes for people with pancreatic disorders.
- Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP): ERCP is surgery that uses a tool called an endoscope to perform procedures that can repair parts of your liver, pancreas, or the ducts that surround them. ECRP can remove damaged tissue, clear blockages, and place stents.
- Tumor removal surgery: In the case of either liver or pancreatic cancer, surgery to remove the tumor is always the primary treatment option. You might also have chemotherapy, radiation,
targeted therapy, immunotherapy, or other specialized cancer treatments.
Liver and pancreas cleanses have received a lot of buzz in recent years. You might have seen detox beverages and other advertised products claiming they can cleanse your liver. You’ve likely wondered what exactly these cleanses are and whether they work.
Liver and pancreas cleanses claim they can repair your liver. Many even state they can reverse the damage after a vacation or weekend of drinking. However, these claims aren’t supported by research or by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In fact, some of these products could be dangerous and could harm your liver.
However, these claims don’t have enough data for these ingredients to be FDA-endorsed for liver health. And many of the additional ingredients in liver and pancreas cleanse products often have much less scientific backing.
You don’t need liver or pancreas cleanse products. You can repair damage to your organs by taking such steps as:
- quitting smoking if you smoke
- losing weight if needed
- reducing alcohol consumption if you drink
While these lifestyle methods won’t deliver overnight results — as claimed by some cleanses — they do deliver results. And not only will you be following proven science, but you’ll also be improving your overall health.
Your liver and pancreas provide vital functions that your body needs to digest, absorb, and use nutrients.
A problem with your liver or pancreas can cause nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, and many other symptoms. The exact symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment will depend on the condition and severity of the disorder.
Many liver and pancreas disorders can be managed with lifestyle changes such as weight loss, quitting smoking, and reducing alcohol consumption. Other treatments might include medications or surgery.