The symptoms of liver failure are dramatic and usually of sudden onset, fluid retention with ascites (intra-abdominal fluid) and leg swelling, vomiting blood from oesophageal varices and confusion (hepatic encephalopathy).
The signs of liver failure are abdominal ascites (fluid accumulation in the peritoneal cavity), liver cancer in a cirrhotic liver shown on CT scan, oesophageal varices, the result of scarring in the liver and high pressure in the portal vein transporting blood into the liver from the intestine and the dramatic view of bleeding varices down an endoscope. Jaundice would be seen in the eyes of someone with cirrhosis.
When these develop there are medical treatments which can help, but full repair of the underlying cirrhotic liver is impossible, and there are ongoing needs then for medical monitoring and the only potential curative therapy is liver transplantation, which is a resource that is restricted and not applicable to all. The quality of life of people with cirrhosis is often poor. Even if the overt symptoms of liver failure can be managed, the treatments are not without side effects and symptoms such as debilitating fatigue are common. In the UK, currently, over 50% of people with cirrhosis are only diagnosed when they are admitted to hospital with liver failure, and they have therefore very restricted treatment options.
Primary liver cancer, hepatocellular carcinoma, is a complication of chronic liver injury and usually occurs in people with cirrhosis. Although treatments for liver cancer are improving rapidly, prevention is better than cure. An early diagnosis of liver disease which is then treated before cirrhosis has developed will usually abolish the cancer risk totally. A diagnosis of cirrhosis will allow people affected to be regularly screened for liver cancer development, which is shown to detect cancers earlier when curative treatment is more likely to be possible.
Liver disease has a number of causes but more than 90% of them are preventable. The most common causes are:
- Fatty liver related to weight gain, and
- Viral hepatitis.
A major problem is that liver disease remains symptom-free until it is very advanced. Detection, therefore, relies on picking up abnormal blood tests, liver function tests, or recognising a risk factor for liver disease and proactively looking for it.
Liver function tests are badly named as the blood tests in the usually requested panel are not all function markers. Those that are, bilirubin and albumin, only become abnormal when the liver fails, which is very late in the disease process. The detection of liver disease early, therefore, relies on picking up what are often mild elevations of the liver enzymes.
As liver disease is very common in our society, over 60% of adults are overweight or obese and at risk of fatty liver while one in four adults drink at levels which put them at risk of alcohol related liver injury. Liver function tests are done for reasons totally unconnected with chronic liver disease in the majority of people, either drug monitoring for things like statin prescribing in primary care or a non-specific catch all in hospitalised patients. This means that when liver blood tests are checked there are elevated liver damage markers, mainly ALT, found in a large number of people who are apparently healthy.
The lack of appreciation of the long natural history of liver disease means such elevations are often written off as minor and irrelevant and are very often ignored. Only recently have liver fibrosis markers in blood tests and scan form become available outside specialist units, so from when liver disease rates started to rise in our population, probably the 1990s, until recently, detection of liver disease required identification of abnormal transaminases and undertaking a screen for liver disease.
This is partly history: alcohol intake, drug treatments and risk factors for viral liver disease which are birth in a high prevalence country for hepatitis B and medical treatment overseas or injecting drug use for hepatitis C and partly examination for obesity and signs of chronic liver disease plus a range of additional tests. These are an ultrasound scan of the liver which is a good way of spotting fatty liver as the fatty liver reflects more ultrasound back to the probe, so the liver appears “bright” and blood tests for specific liver disorders.
These tests are not new or novel, these diagnostic tests and algorithms of when to investigate and what to do with abnormal test results have been around since the 1990s with numerous National and International guidelines being produced.
If a diagnosis is made, then there is treatment.
Hepatitis C now has widely available treatment with pills for which an 8–12-week treatment cures 97% of people and prevents the development of liver fibrosis. Hepatitis B has had effective anti-viral therapy now for two decades and although a cure is not possible, control with safe side effect free medicines is routine.
Auto-immune liver diseases have specific therapy now, again with an excellent chance of control of the disease, and again avoidance of long-term risk of liver fibrosis in the vast majority of people.
Alcohol excess, perhaps surprising to many, also has very effective treatment. Even where people are dependent on alcohol, engagement in an NHS approved treatment programme has around a 70% chance of reducing alcohol consumption to a physically safe level. This is far more effective than stop smoking programmes reflecting the less addictive nature of alcohol overall than tobacco.
Obesity, or more specifically central abdominal fat, causes fatty liver. While behaviour change and weight loss may be challenging to achieve, it can be done, and the knowledge of physical disease due to obesity is a motivator to undertake the exercise, 20 minutes, five times per week sufficient to sustain heart rate at 75% of maximal and weight loss of 7-10% of starting body weight which are proven to reverse fatty liver and to stop or slow progression.