According to the Brown University Division of Biology and Medicine, the liver detoxifies the blood and removes waste products; manufactures proteins necessary for blood clotting; stores carbohydrates, minerals and vitamins; produces bile necessary for digestion; and helps the immune system fight off infections. The liver also has the ability to heal and regenerate itself, if liver disease is treated early. The cause of liver diseases can vary, but the progression of damage often follows a pattern.
Stage 1: Inflammation
In the initial stages of liver disease, the liver becomes inflamed when it becomes exposed to a virus, bacteria, certain medications or any other toxins. This condition is called hepatitis. According to the American Liver Foundation (ALF), inflammation indicates the body's immune response is actively fighting off an infection or healing an injury. The liver may enlarge and become tender internally, although it may not cause any discomfort externally, says the ALF. If inflammation continues long enough, mild flu-like symptoms, such as weakness and fatigue, may appear along with nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or lack of appetite. Successfully treating the liver at this stage can prevent complications and stop further damage to the organ caused by prolonged inflammation.
Stage 2: Scarring
If inflammation of the liver is not reversed in time, scarring of the liver tissue begins and it occurs in two stages: fibrosis and cirrhosis. Scar tissue starts replacing healthy liver tissue after prolonged irritation. As scarring increases, the leftover healthy areas of the liver have to compensate for the non-functioning areas and the liver's overall performance diminishes. The difference between fibrosis and cirrhosis is that at the fibrosis stage, the damage may still be reversed and the liver has a chance to heal and regenerate. The ALF also states the amount of scarring with cirrhosis severely damages the liver to point that it cannot be reversed.
According to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, as your liver loses its ability to function, some of your symptoms might include jaundice, which is a yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes; a build-up of waste products in the blood, which affects brain functions; a build-up of fluid in the abdomen, called ascites; and swelling in the extremities. Cirrhosis can lead to many complications, one of which is liver cancer.
Stage 3: Liver Failure
At the final stage of liver disease, the liver loses all its ability to function, and liver failure presents a life-threatening condition. Urgent medical treatment is necessary to prevent death and with limited availability of treatment, transplantation of the liver is the last resort. The ALF lists progressing symptoms of liver failure, which include serious impairment of the central nervous system such as confusion, disorientation and extreme sleepiness, leading to a coma and eventually death.
- Brown University Division of Biology and Medicine: Normal Liver Physiology
- "How the Body Works"; Dr. Peter Abrahams; 2007
- American Liver Foundation: The Progression of Liver Disease
- NDDIC: What I need to know about Cirrhosis of the Liver