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Enlarged Liver (Hepatomegaly)

An enlarged liver occurs when the liver swells beyond its normal size. A medical term for an enlarged liver is hepatomegaly. An enlarged liver is typically a sign of an underlying problem. There are many possible causes of an enlarged liver, including hepatitis.

Depending on the cause, liver enlargement can sometimes lead to liver failure. This occurs when a large part of the liver becomes damaged and is deteriorating.

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Located on the right side of the abdomen, the liver is a vital organ. For example, it helps with ridding the body of toxins and producing substances that aid in body processes such as clotting. If you have an enlarged liver, it is important to find the source of the problem and receive appropriate treatment.

Signs and Symptoms of an Enlarged Liver

In most cases, a slightly enlarged liver causes no symptoms. However, if your liver becomes severely enlarged, you may have:

  • A feeling of fullness
  • Abdominal discomfort

With liver disease, you may have other symptoms, such as jaundice, fatigue, weakness, nausea, and weight loss.

During a physical exam, your doctor can detect an enlarged liver on the right side of your abdomen. A variety of tests may also be needed to confirm the cause of an enlarged liver, including:

  • Blood tests to check for liver enzymes and other abnormalities related to liver disease
  • CT scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or ultrasound to view the liver
  • ERCP, a scope test to check for problems in the bile duct
  • MRCP, a special MRI test to check the inside of the bile duct
  • Liver biopsy, an examination of a sample of liver tissue to check for cancer or a fatty liver 


Causes of an Enlarged Liver

An enlarged liver may occur as a result of one or more of these causes:

Inflammation or fatty liver may cause an enlarged liver and may result from:

  • An infection such as a from a virus or abscess
  • Certain medications
  • Toxins
  • Certain types of hepatitis, including alcoholic hepatitis
  • Autoimmune disease
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Genetic disorders that cause fat, protein, or other substances to build up

Abnormal growths may cause an enlarged liver. This may result from:

  • Cysts
  • Tumors that start or spread to the liver

A problem with blood flow can cause the liver to enlarge. This may be due to a variety of conditions such as:

  • Congestive heart failure, a condition where the heart fails to pump blood well
  • Hepatic vein thrombosis, a blockage of veins in the liver
  • Veno-occlusive disease, a blockage of small veins in the liver


Treatment for an Enlarged Liver

Without treatment, liver enlargement can lead to liver failure. If you have an enlarged liver, your doctor will confirm what's causing it and take steps to treat it. Treatment for an enlarged liver depends upon the cause. For example, if drinking too much alcohol is the source of the problem, it is essential to stop so the liver does not become severely damaged. Your doctor may tell you to avoid all alcohol no matter what is causing your liver to be enlarged. Or, if you have an underlying disease, medication or other types of treatment may help.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on May 28, 2013

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