Diagnosis

An enlarged liver may go unnoticed for a long time. Frequently, liver enlargement isn't discovered until you see a doctor for more-obvious signs and symptoms of the condition responsible for your enlarged liver.

As part of the physical examination for possible liver disease, doctors use their fingertips to press on the right side of your belly just below your rib cage and feel (palpate) the lower edge of your liver, noting its size, texture, and tenderness. Depending on the underlying cause, an enlarged liver may feel soft, firm or irregular. Well-defined lumps may be present as well.

This exam provides only a very rough estimate of liver size, though. For a precise measurement, you'll need imaging, typically starting with an abdominal ultrasound. If there's a need for more-detailed images, you may also have a computerized tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Additional procedures

Once your doctor determines that you have an enlarged liver, further tests help determine the cause. These tests include:

  • Blood tests. A blood sample is tested to determine liver enzyme levels. This can give clues about the health of your liver. Blood tests can also identify viruses that can cause enlarged liver, such as the hepatitis viruses.
  • Magnetic resonance elastography uses shear waves to create a visual map (elastogram) of the stiffness of liver tissue. This test is noninvasive and can be an alternative to a liver biopsy.
  • Removing a sample of liver tissue for testing (liver biopsy). Your doctor may recommend a biopsy to collect a sample of liver tissue for laboratory testing. A liver biopsy is often done using a long, thin needle that's inserted through your skin and into your liver. The needle draws out a core of tissue that is then sent to a laboratory for testing. Your doctor may use ultrasound to help guide the biopsy.

Treatment

Treatment for an enlarged liver varies, depending on condition that's causing it. Some of the most common causes, including alcoholic hepatitis and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, improve dramatically with alcohol abstinence, a healthy diet, regular exercise and weight loss.

Clinical trials

Explore Mayo Clinic studies testing new treatments, interventions and tests as a means to prevent, detect, treat or manage this disease.

Preparing for your appointment

If you have any signs or symptoms that worry you, visit your primary care doctor. If your doctor suspects that you have a condition involving your liver, you may need additional tests and referral to a liver specialist (hepatologist).

Because appointments can be brief, and there's a lot of ground to cover, it's a good idea to be prepared.

What you can do

  • Be aware of any pre-appointment restrictions. At the time you make the appointment, be sure to ask if there's anything you need to do in advance, such as restrict your diet.
  • Write down any symptoms you're experiencing, including any that may seem unrelated to the reason for which you scheduled the appointment.
  • Write down key personal information, including any major stresses or recent life changes.
  • Make a list of all medications, vitamins or supplements that you're taking.
  • Take a family member or friend along. Sometimes it can be difficult to remember all of the information provided during an appointment. Someone who accompanies you may recall something that you missed or forgot.

It's also helpful to write down questions you may want to ask your doctor. Possible questions:

  • How are my symptoms related to my enlarged liver?
  • Is the cause of my enlarged liver more likely to be a primary liver disease or the result of a disease originating in another organ?
  • What kinds of tests do I need?
  • Is my condition temporary or long lasting?
  • What treatments are available?
  • Could liver enlargement be related to other medical conditions I have, or to medications I take for those conditions?
  • Should I see a specialist?
  • Will I need follow-up visits?

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor is likely to ask questions about your past and current use of alcohol and drugs, as well as your sexual history. For a correct diagnosis, it’s important that you answer these questions honestly. Be sure to report recent illnesses and overseas travel as well. Other questions may focus on your eating and exercise habits.

Nov. 27, 2015
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