What is an enlarged liver?
The liver is an essential organ in many of the body’s functions. An enlarged liver (hepatomegaly) is swollen beyond its normal size for any reason.
An enlarged liver is a symptom of an underlying problem, but is not a disease itself. An enlarged liver may occur along with other symptoms, depending on the underlying disease that is causing it.
Symptoms and Causes
What causes an enlarged liver?
Several diseases or conditions can cause the liver to enlarge. For some people, an enlarged liver results from consuming too many toxins, including alcohol, medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol®) or supplements. Long-term exposure to high doses of toxic substances (including alcohol), medications or supplements can cause cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver.
Other diseases and medical conditions that can cause the liver to enlarge include:
- Cancers, including liver cancer or cancer from other organs metastasizing (spreading) to the liver, especially colon cancer, pancreatic cancer and lung cancer
- Benign (non-cancerous) liver tumors
- Blood backflow from the heart as a result of congestive heart failure or other diseases affecting the valves of the heart
- Budd-Chiari syndrome (blood clots in the blood vessels that drain the liver)
- Recurrent alcohol use causing inflammation of the liver
- Excess fat in the liver, usually as a result of obesity, alcohol use or diabetes
- Genetic (inherited) disorders that cause fatty or sugary substances to build up in the liver, such as Gaucher disease and alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency
- Polycystic liver disease (several benign cysts in the liver)
- Acute fatty liver of pregnancy (abnormal fat accumulation in the liver during pregnancy)
What are the symptoms of an enlarged liver?
An enlarged liver often does not cause any symptoms. Doctors often detect it when treating a patient for another, unrelated condition.
An enlarged liver may occur along with other symptoms, especially if the underlying cause is a primary liver disease. These symptoms may include:
- Jaundice (yellowing of the whites of the eyes and skin)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Pain in the upper middle or upper right side of the abdomen
- Filling up quickly after meals
If you have any of these symptoms, especially if they persist, contact your doctor.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is an enlarged liver diagnosed?
A doctor can diagnose an enlarged liver with a physical examination and imaging tests, such as such as CT scan, ultrasound or MRI. The doctor will likely need to order some blood tests to determine what is causing the liver enlargement. In some cases, a liver biopsy (a small sample of the liver to be examined under the microscope) might be needed.
Management and Treatment
How is an enlarged liver treated?
Treatment for an enlarged liver depends on what is causing it. Lifestyle changes can help when the liver enlargement is a result of fat accumulation in the liver or consuming alcohol. Lifestyle changes include:
- Losing weight
- Cutting back or eliminating alcohol
- Eating a healthy diet
- Increasing exercise and physical activity
Treatment for other causes of liver enlargement depends on the underlying disease that caused it.
When should I call the doctor about symptoms of an enlarged liver?
If you have symptoms that may indicate an enlarged liver, such as pain in the upper abdomen, persistent nausea and vomiting, or jaundice, contact your doctor.