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Evaluation of the Patient With a Liver Disorder

By

Danielle Tholey

, MD, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital

Last full review/revision Oct 2019| Content last modified Oct 2019
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NOTE: This is the Professional Version. CONSUMERS: Click here for the Consumer Version
Topic Resources

History and physical examination often suggest a cause of potential liver disorders and narrow the scope of testing for hepatic and biliary disorders.

History

Various symptoms may develop, but few are specific for liver disorders:

  • Common nonspecific symptoms include fatigue, anorexia, nausea, and, occasionally, vomiting, particularly in severe disorders.

  • Loose, fatty stools (steatorrhea) can occur when cholestasis prevents sufficient bile from reaching the intestines. Patients with steatorrhea are at risk of deficiencies of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K). Common clinical consequences may include osteoporosis and bleeding.

  • Fever can develop in viral or alcoholic hepatitis.

  • Jaundice, occurring in both hepatocellular dysfunction and cholestatic disorders, is the most specific symptom. It is often accompanied by dark urine and light-colored stools.

  • Right upper quadrant pain due to liver disorders usually results from distention (eg, by passive venous congestion or tumor) or inflammation of the liver capsule.

  • Erectile dysfunction and feminization develop; however, these symptoms may reflect the effects of alcohol more than liver disorders.

Table
icon

Risk Factors for Liver Disorders

Category

Risk Factors

Acquired

Alcohol use

Blood transfusions (particularly before 1992)*

Body piercing*

Exposure to other liver toxins

Exposure to hepatitis*

Needlesticks*

Parenteral drug use*

Tattoos*

Familial

* These factors increase risk of hepatitis in particular, as well as risk of liver disorders in general

Family history, social history, and drug and substance use history should note risk factors for liver disorders (see table Risk Factors for Liver Disorders ).

Physical examination

Abnormalities detectable during a physical examination usually do not develop until late in the course of liver disease. Some common findings suggest a cause (see table Interpretation of Some Physical Findings ).

Table
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Interpretation of Some Physical Findings

Finding

Possible Causes

Comments

Hepatic abnormalities

Hepatomegaly

Passive venous congestion

Liver hemorrhage (into a cyst or the parenchyma)

Palpable mass

Cancer

Liver firmness, irregular shape, blunt edges, and few if any individual nodules

Tenderness

Passive congestion

Liver hemorrhage

Because of patient anxiety, often overdiagnosed

True liver tenderness (a deep-seated ache) best elicited by percussion or compression of the rib cage

Occasionally, if severe, mimics peritonitis

Friction rubs or bruits (rare)

Tumor

Extrahepatic abnormalities

Alcoholic hepatitis if chronic or severe

Peritoneal carcinomatosis

Generalized fluid retention (eg, heart failure, nephrotic syndrome, hypoalbuminemia)

Typically abdominal distention, shifting dullness, and fluid wave

May not be detectable if volume is < 1500 mL

Visibly dilated abdominal veins (caput medusae)

Inferior vena cava obstruction

Splenomegaly

Nonalcoholic cirrhosis

Asterixis

Uremia

Heart failure if severe

Bilateral, asynchronous flapping of dorsiflexed hands with the arms outstretched

Fetor hepaticus

Sweet, pungent smell

Drowsiness and confusion

Drugs

Brain or systemic disorders

Nonspecific

Wasted extremities plus protuberant abdomen with ascites (cirrhotic habitus)

Cirrhosis if advanced

Cancers with peritoneal metastases if advanced

Drugs

Pituitary, genetic, systemic, and endocrine disorders

Testicular atrophy, erectile dysfunction, infertility, and loss of libido

In men, gynecomastia, loss of axillary or chest hair, and female pattern of pubic hair

Alcohol abuse if chronic

Drugs

Endocrine disorders

Gynecomastia differentiated from pseudogynecomastia (in overweight men) by examination

Gynecomastia plus testicular atrophy

Alcohol abuse if chronic

Pituitary or other endocrine disorders

Pregnancy

Undernutrition if severe

Alcohol abuse if chronic (possibly)

After compression, peripherally directed blood flow (to the outside of the lesion)

Possibly increased risk of severe cirrhosis and variceal hemorrhage as number of angiomas increases

May occur as a normal variant (usually < 3)

Palmar erythema

Feminization (in men)

Pregnancy

Hematologic cancers

Alcohol abuse if chronic (possibly)

Often most obvious on thenar and hypothenar eminences

In patients with cirrhosis, clubbing

Lung disorders if chronic

Cyanotic heart disease

Infection (eg, infective endocarditis) if chronic

Hyperbilirubinemia caused by conditions such as hepatic or biliary disorders, hemolysis, use of certain drugs, or inborn errors of metabolism

Visible when bilirubin level is > 2 to 2.5 mg/dL (> 34 to 43 micromol/L)

Affects sclerae (unlike carotenemia)

Muddy skin pigmentation, excoriations caused by constant pruritus, and xanthelasmas or xanthomas (cutaneous lipid deposits)

Cholestasis (including primary biliary cholangitis) if chronic

Parotid gland enlargement

Alcohol use if chronic (often present with alcoholic cirrhosis)

Slate gray or bronze skin

Hemochromatosis with deposition of iron and melanin

Alcohol use if chronic

Cigarette use

Repetitive motion or vibration

Testing

Testing for hepatic and biliary disorders, including blood tests, imaging, and sometimes liver biopsy, plays a prominent role in the diagnosis of liver disorders. Individual tests, particularly those of liver biochemistry and excretion, often have limited sensitivity and specificity. A combination of tests often best defines the cause and severity of disease.

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