According to the Canadian Liver Foundation, liver disease is on the rise, and what once affected 1 in 10 Canadians now affects an estimated 1 in 4, ranging in everyone from newborns to adults; with liver cancer also now being one of the fastest rising (and deadliest) forms of cancer in the country.
The cause for this dramatic upswing of diagnosed cases isn’t just due to excessive alcohol consumption – which is one of the biggest misconceptions when it comes to liver disease. While avoiding alcohol can certainly help prevent your risk of developing liver disease, it’s never a guarantee. This is because there are a multitude of other risk factors associated with liver disease besides alcohol. It can be inherited (genetic), or caused by things such as viruses, excessive use of acetaminophen, obesity, and even hemochromatosis (iron overload.) In fact, there are over 100 varieties of liver disease caused by a wide range of factors, some of them unknown.
Signs and symptoms of liver disease include:
• Abdominal pain (right upper quadrant)
• Abdominal swelling
• Swelling of the legs and ankles
• Yellowing (jaundice) of the skin and eyes
• Itchy skin
• Dark urine
• Pale, bloody or tar-coloured stool
• Chronic fatigue
• Loss of appetite
Because the liver plays such an important role in as many as 500 bodily functions, including digestion, metabolism, and immune defence, Dr. Ali Ghahary says it’s essential that you speak with your physician upon the first sign of any abnormalities with your health – particularly if you experience any of the symptoms mentioned above. By leaving liver disease undiagnosed, this can result in liver failure over time, which can become life-threatening, therefore early detection is key.
That being said, sometimes symptoms of liver disease and liver cirrhosis go undiagnosed because they are often unnoticed by the patient. This is due to the fact that the liver is known as a “silent” organ. Generally, when symptoms of liver disease do occur, such as jaundice, this means that it has already reached an advanced stage. However, it’s not uncommon for someone with liver disease to feel more sluggish, even in earlier stages of the disease. While some may chalk their fatigue down to having a long day at work, lack of sleep, or from medications they may be taking, it’s an important symptom that should not be ignored. While feeling tired can certainly be a result of any of these aforementioned factors, it may also be a strong indicator of liver diseases; thus, it’s better to have it checked out by a medical professional than to shrug it off until it’s too late.
If it’s suspected that you have liver disease, your physician will send you for blood work to determine any abnormalities – such as inflammation, or if there is any liver cell damage. Blood tests commonly ordered by physicians to help diagnose liver disease in patients include the alanine aminotransferase (ALT) or aspartame aminotransferase (AST) tests.