Many factors and conditions can lead to liver pain. Whatever it is, identifying the exact cause of the problem is important to prevent irreversible (permanent) liver damage. The pain can take several forms. For instance, sometimes it flares up after eating a meal. In such case, it can also arise for various reasons.
If your liver gets injured or damaged, it could be painful – though sometimes there is no any symptom that you feel, especially if the damage is mild.
Your liver is a tough organ that can repair and heal itself. But this ability is not unlimited. Over time, chronic damage to the liver will turn to become severe and even irreversible if left untreated. So, never underestimate any pain arising from the liver or other symptoms that might signal a liver disorder. Early treatment is crucial to prevent permanent damage.
Liver pain may vary from person to person. But typically, it is felt in the upper part of your abdomen, specifically on your right hand side. It usually feels like a dull, throbbing sensation. Sometimes you may feel it as a stabbing sensation that make you breathe more difficultly.
However it’s not always easy to determine whether the pain is coming from the liver or elsewhere in the body. Also, the pain is not always severe and could be vogue (nonspecific) – you might perceive it like coming from the back, stomach, right shoulder, or even the kidneys.
Depending on the severity of your liver damage, you may also experience other symptoms of a liver problem, such as:
- Fatigue (feeling tired).
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Loss of appetite and malnutrition, which is usually followed with unintentional weight loss.
- Tendency to bleed or bruise more easily.
- The buildup of excess fluid within the abdomen and /or the legs.
- Abdominal tenderness.
- Becoming extremely sleepy, disoriented, or confused.
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin).
- Intense itchy skin.
- Problems of mental functions — like memory problems, difficulty concentrating, and problems with sleeping.
In general, liver pain is a consequence of liver disease (a group of conditions / disorders that cause liver inflammation or liver damage). And some liver diseases could be fatal if left untreated, because they may eventually cause liver failure (an emergency condition when the liver stops functioning).
Identifying the type of liver disease that causes your liver pain may take some careful medical sleuthing, because the pain can be caused by more than 100 different types of liver disease – here are a few examples.
There are a number of conditions that can make your liver become inflamed. Some of them are infections (hepatitis for example), excessive alcohol consumption, high-fat diet, and exposure to harmful toxins. The inflammation may make your liver become tender and enlarged. And most of liver diseases start from this inflammation.
Actually, inflammation is a normal response of your body when trying to heal or fight against infection. But sometimes it continues over time. If left untreated, this will damage the liver seriously. But if immediate treatment is given at this phase, the inflammation will heal and further liver damage can be prevented.
This is a condition in which you have a pocket of abnormal, infected fluid in your liver. It can be caused by infections of fungus, bacteria, and parasites. Immediate treatment is necessary, because it can hurt and damage the healthy tissues of the liver. Treatments include antifungal medicines or antibiotics, depending on what causes the abscess.
Fibrosis and cirrhosis
The inflamed area of the liver may drive scar tissues to grow. This process, when scar tissues grow and replace healthy tissues of your liver, is called fibrosis. Fibrous scar tissues don’t work as well as healthy tissues. That’s why, over time fibrosis may also impair your liver function. The good news, it’s quite possible to reverse the damaged area caused by fibrosis. With prompt treatment, the scarred tissues will go away and the liver can repair itself over time.
But if left untreated, fibrous tissues can turn to become hard scar tissues (more difficult to treat). As a result, you may have cirrhosis, which is the late stage of fibrosis. It can cause permanent liver damage, leading to liver failure. Cirrhosis treatment is usually focused to save the healthy area of the liver and prevent further damage.
This is a rare syndrome in which the blood flow from the liver is blocked by blood clots. The blockage causes the blood to return and back up in the liver, making it to swell (enlarge) and causing high blood pressure called ‘portal hypertension’. Sometimes nearby organs, the spleen for example, may also be affected and become enlarged.
In rare cases, inflammation and scar tissues of the liver might turn to become cancer. Primary liver cancer, a term to describe cancer that starts to develop from original cells of the liver, can be triggered by several factors – some of the common ones are infections (especially hepatitis B) and cirrhosis.
First off, see your doctor promptly if there’s still no clearly answer for the exact cause of your abdominal pain. Don’t assume that pain after eating in the upper stomach is always caused by liver diseases. It can also be caused by something else such as gastritis, pancreatitis, cholecystitis, and much more.
If you have been diagnosed with a liver disease, upper abdominal pain after a meal may signal that certain foods worsen the condition. In such case, a few changes in diet may help. Even sometimes treatment for liver disease could start with addressing what foods to eat and avoid.
Diet for liver disease may vary from case to case. For example, people with liver failure could be placed on a very restricted diet. But if the liver damage is mild, a few adjustments in diet may be enough to help cope with. Moreover, some people have certain food intolerances such as dairy products and gluten.
But in general, here are a few common culprits to avoid for people with liver disease.
The liver plays a key role to break down alcohol. But if you drink more than your liver can process, this will hurt and damage the healthy cells of your liver.
For people with liver failure, alcohol is forbidden because it can worsen their liver damage! If the liver damage is mild, drinking in moderation may be still OK (ask your doctor for more guidance). But if alcohol does worsen your liver pain, you may need to significantly cut down on it or even (if necessary) completely eliminate it from your diet!
We all agree that protein is one of essential nutrients for the body. But where your dietary protein comes from also matters, this is especially true if you have nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Diet high in animal protein may have a role to increase the risk of fatty liver disease (particularly for elderly and obese people) and worsen the outlook of the condition.
Plant-based protein sources are more recommended. These include soy, tofu or other soy products, peas, beans, and some veggies (spinach and broccoli for examples).
How about fish? As well we know that fish is not only high in protein, but also good source for unsaturated healthy fats (omega-3 fatty acids).
However the story can be slightly different for people with liver problems (especially those with liver failure). They need to restrict their dietary animal protein particularly in fatty red meat — and also in cheese, egg-yolk, and even fish. High amounts of animal protein may worsen their liver damage and factor into brain dysfunction.
But since fish is also loaded with lots of essential nutrients (including some anti-inflammatory properties), you may not need to completely eliminate it from your diet. Ask your healthcare provider to keep safe!
Processed and refined foods
Processed foods are usually high in fats, hydrogenated oils, and other bad things that can become toxic to your system, including the liver. The high fructose syrup, which is also often found in many processed foods, can contribute to cause fatty liver. Ingredients such as excess salt and nitrates in processed meat products could also have an effect.
The same goes for refined foods. Diet high in refined foods and animal protein may affect the liver function, because these factors may alter acid balance and glucose metabolism in the body. Refined carbohydrates, for example, can cause insulin levels to spike. This is bad for your liver function, because insulin sensitivity can affect your liver health.
Make sure to carefully read the label, including for whole grain packages, and avoid anything with ‘enriched’ label!
Sodas, sport drinks, and other sugar-sweetened drinks are loaded with lots of artificial sweeteners, which are bad for your liver functions. Diet high in fructose, a kind of sugar, might also cause increased risk of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease – according to a research conducted at Emory University School of Medicine.
Here are other things you can do to help ease liver pain and improve the overall health of the liver:
- Eliminate salty food and don’t add extra salt (sodium) to foods you eat. High amounts of dietary sodium can elevate your blood pressure level, making your heart and liver work harder. This can also worsen swelling caused by a build-up of fluid in the abdomen, legs, or feet.
- Maintain a healthy-body weight. Obesity can make it harder to cope with any liver disease. Eat everything in balance and do exercise regularly!
- It may also be helpful to sit up straight when you eat your foods. This can help take pressure off your liver.
- Having 3-4 small meals a day may help – rather than eating 1-2 large meals. Depending on the severity of your liver damage, your liver may lose its ability to store glycogen. As a result, you can be so weak (feeling tired) between meals, because your body doesn’t get enough glycogen for short-term energy. Healthy snacking between your meals is also good idea to have more energy throughout the day.
- Take any medicines properly. Use them only in recommended doses and when needed, because excess use of medications can make your liver work harder!
Also, protect yourself from infectious diseases (especially hepatitis). Get the hepatitis A and B vaccines (if appropriate)! And avoid practicing risky behaviors, such as having unprotected intercourse and sharing needles used to inject drugs.
If you liver pain doesn’t improve or persists for hours, seek immediate medical help! This is particularly true if the pain gets worse or comes with other emergency symptoms such as severe nausea & vomiting, yellowish skin, extreme fatigue, confusion, or high fever!