Treatment For An Enlarged Liver

The liver is the largest gland in the body, weighing about 3.5 pounds. It has a complex job, including metabolizing and storing fats, cholesterol, and carbohydrates; secreting bile to assist in the intestinal absorption of fats; and detoxifying the body of toxins introduced through drugs, alcohol and pollution. Under certain circumstances, this already sizable organ can become enlarged. The enlargement (“hepatomegaly”) is not a disease, but it is a symptom of an underlying condition, such as hepatitis, cancer or congestive heart failure. The treatment of an enlarged liver, therefore, depends on the underlying cause.

Causes of an Enlarged Liver

The liver may become enlarged for multiple reasons. Excessive alcohol consumption is a common cause, as is a viral infection, such as hepatitis A, B or C. An enlarged liver also may occur when excess fat (“nonalcoholic fatty liver disease”) or iron accumulates in the liver. Liver cancer also may cause enlargement, as can congestive heart failure or a blood disorder such as leukemia.

Signs & Symptoms

As there are no nerves in the liver, most people with an enlarged liver have no outward signs or symptoms. Those with an extremely enlarged liver might feel some tenderness upon touching their abdomen, or have pain or discomfort as the liver presses upon other organs and nerves. If the enlargement is affecting the liver’s ability to function, a person may develop jaundice.

Risk Factors

The risk factor for developing an enlarged liver depends upon your risk of developing the cause of the enlargement. For example, you are at higher risk of developing an enlarged liver if you are an alcoholic, overweight, have diabetes or abnormal cholesterol levels. You also are at risk if you work in environments where you could be exposed to hepatitis, have unprotected sex with multiple partners, share drug needles, inject or snort illegal drugs, or received a blood transfusion before 1970.

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Diagnosis

An enlarged liver is most likely to be discovered during the course of a physical exam. A doctor can gauge the size of your liver by feeling it and noting how far it extends beyond your rib cage. The doctor also can determine by touch the softness or hardness of your liver, or whether there are any lumps. The doctor may want to investigate further via X-ray, ultrasound or CT scan. She may also order blood tests, to determine how well your liver is functioning, or a liver biopsy, to examine the tissue for malignancy.

Treatment

Treatments for an enlarged liver depend on the condition causing the enlargement. If the cause is alcohol abuse, then the treatment is to stop drinking alcohol. When hepatitis B or C is the cause, you may have to take medication to reduce the swelling. (In the case of hepatitis A, there is usually no treatment prescribed.) For nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, a person must undertake a weight-loss program, engage in a regular exercise program and keep blood sugar and cholesterol under control. Liver cancer and leukemia suffers may be treated with chemotherapy or radiation.