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Polycystic Liver Disease: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Polycystic liver disease (PLD or PCLD) is a rare condition that causes cysts -- fluid-filled sacs -- to grow throughout the liver. A normal liver has a smooth, uniform appearance. A polycystic liver can look like a cluster of very large grapes. Cysts also can grow independently in different parts of the liver. The cysts, if they get too numerous or large, may cause discomfort and health complications. But most people with polycystic liver disease do not have symptoms and live a normal life.

Here are the facts about polycystic liver disease you need to better understand the condition.

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What Causes Polycystic Liver Disease?

The majority of people with polycystic liver disease inherit the condition, but PLD can occur randomly with no genetic link. Women are affected more often than men and tend to have more cysts.

PLD is most common in people who have polycystic kidney disease (PCKD), with its frequency increasing with age and advanced renal disease. 

Most people don't discover they have PLD until they are adults, when the cysts become large enough to detect. Cysts can vary in size from no bigger than a pinhead to almost 4 inches wide. Likewise, your liver can stay its normal size or become extremely enlarged. No matter the number or size of cysts, polycystic livers continue to function normally and the disease is not considered life threatening.

Because it's inherited, if you or someone in your immediate family has PLD, other family members should be tested for it. Doctors can diagnose polycystic liver disease with imaging studies, such as ultrasound, CT scan, or MRI.

 

What Are the Symptoms of Polycystic Liver Disease?

Most of the time, people with polycystic liver disease have no symptoms. However, if the liver becomes enlarged and riddled with cysts, symptoms may include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating or swelling in the abdomen
  • Feeling full

Only about one out of every 10 people with PLD has problems associated with it. In addition to severe abdominal pain, other complications may include:

  • Bleeding into a cyst
  • Infection of a cyst
  • Bile duct obstruction and jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)

 

How Is Polycystic Liver Disease Diagnosed?

Because symptoms do not always occur, the majority of people learn they have PLD during a routine medical exam or diagnosis of kidney disease related to polycystic kidney disease.

The fact that you may have a few cysts does not mean you have polycystic liver disease. Many factors are involved in diagnosing PLD, including family history, age, and number of cysts.

You may be diagnosed with polycystic liver disease if:

  • You have a family member with PLD, are under the age of 40, and have more than one cyst.
  • You have a family member with PLD, are older than 40, and have more than three cysts.
  • You have no family members with PLD, are over the age of 40, and have more than 20 cysts.

 

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