October is liver cancer awareness month. However, there are many other kinds of liver disease that can affect patients of all ages. In many cases, the early detection of such illnesses is vital to effectively treating or reversing them. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may help to depict liver disease in patients who are at risk for liver disease. With the use of MRI, physicians and patients may work together to detect and treat liver disease.
What are the types of liver disease?
There are many kinds of liver disease, including virus-related diseases, alcoholic and non-alcoholic liver diseases, liver cancer and inherited diseases.1 The first kind includes hepatitis A, B and C, while the second includes fatty liver disease and cirrhosis. Liver cancer includes cancer that forms in the hepatocytes, bile ducts and blood vessels.1,2 Inherited hepatic diseases include hemochromatosis and Wilson's disease.
Hepatitis takes the form of inflammation of the liver, which can affect the function of the liver. There are about 73,100 cases of some form of hepatitis each year.3 Hepatitis A may last anywhere from a few weeks to several months. Hepatitis B and C may be acute illnesses or may be life-long. There are vaccines available for Hepatitis A and B, and there are treatments for both Hepatitis A and B. Although there is not a vaccine for Hepatitis C, treatment may be available for either symptoms or the disease itself.
Alcoholic liver disease occurs, as the name implies, when a patient overindulges in alcohol on a regular disease. Non-alcoholic liver disease occurs in patients who do not drink excessively and is caused by a variety of different factors. Both alcoholic and non-alcoholic diseases include fatty liver disease, fibrosis and cirrhosis.
Liver cancer begins in the cells of the liver, which is the largest glandular organ in the body. The liver helps to keep the body free of toxins and harmful substances. There are different types of liver cancer, such as hepatocellular carcinoma, cholangiocarcinoma, liver angiosarcoma and hepatoblastoma. Each cancer type forms in a different part of the liver. However, the treatments for all types of liver cancer often involve chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
Inherited diseases include hemochromatosis, which results in iron building up in the patient's body.4 This is sometimes referred to as iron overload, because the body absorbs too much iron and has no way to get rid of it. Wilson's disease is also included in this category of liver disease. This disease is rare and can cause copper to accumulate in the liver, brain or other vital organs. Copper accumulates over time, because it is not properly eliminated in patients with Wilson's disease.
The importance of early detection of liver disease
Liver disease is often caught at a late stage. This is primarily due to the fact that patients set up appointments with their doctors when they are not feeling well. Often, once a patient starts feeling the effects of liver disease, it may be too late to treat effectively. The shift of focus for some doctors toward more preventive care may lead to earlier detection.
Liver disease may be reversible with early enough detection. Because of this, preventive care may be especially valuable. Early liver disease is often referred to as a silent disease, because the effects are less noticeable. A patient may feel more tired or have less of an appetite than normal. Patients with these symptoms should consult their doctors.
In order to aid the detection of liver disease, it may be helpful to know the signs of liver disease. These signs include jaundice, dark urine, irregular stool, swollen ankles, legs or abdomen, nausea, vomiting or loss of appetite.
The different types of liver disease may have different symptoms and causes, though some causes may be unknown. For example, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) does not have a known cause, but diet may sometimes play a role. NAFLD is among the most common causes of liver disease in the U.S.6 Early detection of NAFLD may help to prevent more serious conditions.6
At the beginning of 2019, one research team found that a specific MRI technique may help to catch fatty liver before the patient begins experiencing sympstoms.7 This is especially important, because NAFLD can be asymptomatic. The researchers have already scanned tens of thousands of patients to watch for NAFLD.
Because MRI may help to detect liver disease of various kinds, including NAFLD, it may be an important tool in the prevention and reversibility of early stage liver disease. As a result, the patient may see a decrease in the risk of developing more serious liver conditions. Liver disease affects patients everywhere, so having a tool that can detect NAFLD before the patient becomes systematic may be valuable for physicians and their patients.
- Liver Diseases: Also called: Hepatic disease. MedlinePlus.org. https://medlineplus.gov/liverdiseases.html Last accessed October 24, 2019.
- Liver Cancer. healthline.com. https://www.healthline.com/health/liver-cancer. Last accessed October 24, 2019.
- Viral Hepatitis. CDC.gov. https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/abc/index.htm. Last accessed October 24, 2019.
- What is hemochromatosis? WebMD.com. https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/what-is-hemochromatosis#1. Last accessed October 24, 2019.
- Worried about your liver? Here's What to Look For. healthline.com. https://www.healthline.com/health/liver-disease-symptoms. Last accessed October 24, 2019.
- Echosens Supports October 2019 Liver Cancer Awareness Month: Cites Importance of Early Detection of Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease. BusinessWire.com. https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20191023005040/en/Echosens-Supports-October-2019-Liver-Cancer-Awareness. Last accessed October 25, 2019.
- University of Arizona researchers tackle obesity-driven disease that can lead to liver failure. Tucson.com. https://tucson.com/news/local/university-of-arizona-researchers-tackle-obesity-driven-disease-that-can/article_88fb3354-1d3c-5455-a969-c0cbe47106dc.html. Last accessed October 25, 2019.