In a healthy individual, the liver plays a huge role in fighting infections, cleansing the blood, storing energy for later use and aiding in the digestion of food. With a healthy lifestyle and good nutrition a healthy liver has the capability to regenerate and repair damage brought on by illness, injury or disease.
Unfortunately, there is often little or no warning that your liver may not be in the best shape possible. Continual injury or undiagnosed infections can lead to chronic inflammation that can lead to liver disease. Early detection of liver disease can often be treated and reversed, however when it remains undiagnosed or treated permanent damage can occur and possibly lead to complete liver failure.
You may be at risk for liver disease and not be aware of the damage that is happening to you liver as a result of some common lifestyle choices.
Liver disease can occur as a result of inflammation caused by illness or injury. Left untreated, the inflammation can lead to chronic liver disease.
Things that can cause liver damage include viral infections such as hepatitis, chemical damage due to medications including over use of over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen. Diets high in fats and low in fiber combined with a lack of exercise also contribute to an increased risk for liver disease.
Stages of Liver Disease
There are many ways damage may occur to your liver. With early diagnosis and treatment, it is possible the liver will be able to regenerate or heal itself from early infection or injury. Left untreated chronic liver disease can lead to complete liver failure and death.
There are four stages to liver disease. It is important to understand the earlier treatment begins for any known causes of illness or damage to the liver, the more likely it is that the damage can be reversed. The three stages of liver disease include:
Inflammation – Simply stated, inflammation is sign your body is trying to fight an infection or heal an injury. Often there are signs of tenderness, fever, or swelling that is easily noticed in most areas of the body. Inflammation may cause your liver to become enlarged and tender but it is not unusual for an inflamed liver to cause no obvious discomfort in the early stages.
Early detection and treatment at this stage is most likely to be completely reversible.
Fibrosis – Treating liver disease is often complicated because it is not easily detected in the earliest stage. When inflammation of the liver is left untreated, it leads to fibrosis or scarring. Scar tissue does not function in the processes the healthy liver does. As more scar tissue builds in the liver, it can interfere with the blood flow which causes even more scarring. Decreased blood flow and increased scarring decreases the efficiency at which your liver functions. At this stage, treatment is essential but with proper treatment and time there is still a chance the liver will be able to heal itself and recover.
Cirrhosis – Liver disease is a progressive condition that when left untreated can lead to cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is permanent scarring of the liver so severe that the liver is no longer able to heal itself. The focus in treating cirrhosis is to keep the disease from progressing any further. It is extremely important at this point to protect the remaining healthy liver function. Cirrhosis can lead to liver cancer or complete liver failure which is a life-threatening condition.
Unfortunately, for many people, cirrhosis is often the first time they are diagnosed with liver disease.
Signs of cirrhosis of the liver may include:
• Bleeding or bruising easily
• Edema (water build up) in your legs, or abdomen.
• Jaundice (yellow color) of your eyes or skin.
• Intense itching
• Blockage in the blood vessels leading to the liver
• New sensitivity to medications and their side effects
• Type 2 Diabetes or insulin resistance
• Difficulty sleeping
• Problems with concentration or memory
Liver Failure – If cirrhosis is left untreated it will progress to total liver failure. Liver failure is a matter of life or death and requires urgent medical intervention. Chronic liver failure is often due to cirrhosis but can also occur due to malnutrition. Liver failure that occurs suddenly is called acute liver failure and is usually caused by poisoning from medications or injury.
Remember- liver disease treated during the first stages of inflammation or fibrosis is most likely to be reversible. Cirrhosis, liver cancer and liver failure have much more limited treatment options. For the sake of your liver, your health and your life discuss your risk of liver disease with your doctor.
The Progression of Liver Disease, (n.d.), American Liver Foundation, Retrieved online at http://www.liverfoundation.org/abouttheliver/info/progression/