Liver Pain - Causes & Location

What Does Liver Pain Feel Like?

Your liver is a football-sized organ that sits under your ribs. It works as your body’s processing plant. Among its more than 500 jobs are to convert food from the small intestine into substances that help you absorb fat and fight off diseases, stockpile energy, and filter and clean your blood.

Even though it’s the largest organ inside your body, it can be hard to pinpoint the pain from your liver. It’s easy to confuse it with pain from your stomach, just to its left. Depending on the cause, a liver that hurts may show up as pain in the front center of your belly, in your back, or even your shoulders.

Your liver doesn’t actually have any pain receptors. Usually, the pain happens because the membrane that surrounds it is inflamed from an illness or injury.

Viral Hepatitis

Viral hepatitis is an inflammation of your liver. The three most common types are hepatitis A, B, and C. They’re caused by different viruses that infect your liver. It can cause pain in the upper right side of your belly, where your liver sits. Other signs of hepatitis include dark-colored pee, yellow skin or eyes (known as jaundice), tiredness, nausea, or vomiting.

Alcoholic Hepatitis

Alcoholic hepatitis happens when too much alcohol overtaxes and inflames your liver. Pain from alcoholic hepatitis may make your abdomen feel tender. You also likely will lose weight and your appetite, be nauseated, run a low-grade fever, and feel tired and weak.

Fatty Liver Disease

Too much weight, diabetes, or a high-cholesterol diet can make too much fat build up in your liver. Over time, that can scar your liver and keep it from doing its job. Fatty liver usually causes no symptoms. But it can make you tired or give you a constant dull pain either in the right upper part of your belly, or all over it.

Fitz-Hugh-Curtis Syndrome

Fitz-Hugh-Curtis syndrome is a rare condition in women causes sudden, severe pain in the upper right section of your belly that might spread to your arm and shoulder. It’s a bacterial infection. It inflames the tissues around your liver (your doctor might call this perihepatitis) and can affect the lining of the stomach. You’ll also often have fever, chills, headache, and feel ill.

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Liver Abscess or Cyst

A bacterial, fungal, or parasitic infection in your liver can form an abscess, or a pocket of pus. The top right side of your abdomen may be tender. Your doctor may be able to feel that your liver is enlarged. Usually, you’ll also have fever and chills.

Cysts are also pockets of fluid, but they aren’t usually infected. If they are large, they may make you uncomfortable, mostly because you’ll feel “full” in your abdomen. Cysts sometimes can bleed, which can cause sudden, severe pain in your upper right belly and shoulder.

Budd-Chiari Syndrome

Budd-Chiari Syndrome is an uncommon disorder resulting from a narrowing of the veins that let blood and fluid drain from your liver. It can be caused by blood clots and swelling in your liver. Often, it’ll make the top right side of your belly hurt.

Portal Vein Thrombosis

Your portal vein is the vessel that brings blood to your liver from your intestines. But if a blood clot blocks the vein, you may feel sudden pain in the upper right part of your abdomen by your liver. You also may have swelling in your belly and a fever.

Liver Injury

Thanks to its size, your liver may get injured after accidents, falls, and other trauma. If your liver is bleeding, you’ll usually have pain and tenderness in your abdomen and right shoulder. You may also have signs of shock from blood loss.

Liver Cancer

You normally won’t have any pain until your liver cancer has advanced to later stages. Once you do start to hurt, it can show up anywhere from your abdomen to your shoulder. Your doctor may be able to feel a lump by pressing on the right side of your belly. You may also lose weight, feel itchy, have yellow skin or eyes, have a swollen stomach, and feel sick.

Gallstones

Your gallbladder is tucked right underneath your liver. So gallstones -- digestive juices that harden into nuggets -- can cause pain that you might mistake as coming from your liver. You may have sudden pain that gets worse quickly. Gallstone pain may be located in the center or right side of your upper abdomen, between your shoulder blades, or in your right shoulder.

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When to Call Your Doctor

If your liver pain comes on quickly, hurts too much, goes on for a long time, or keeps you from carrying on with normal activities, get it checked out.

Other signs that you need medical treatment right away include:

  • Jaundice
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Nausea or vomiting
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on September 28, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

Kid’s Health: “Your Liver.”

The Hepatitis Foundation of New Zealand: “Dealing with liver and abdominal pain.”

CDC: “Viral Hepatitis.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Liver: Anatomy and Functions.”

Mayo Clinic: “Alcoholic Hepatitis,” “Gallstones,” “Liver disease.”

Journal of Clinical and Translational Hepatology: “Acetaminophen-Induced Hepatotoxicity: A Comprehensive Update.”

National Organization for Rare Disorders: “Fitz Hugh Curtis Syndrome,” “Budd-Chiari Syndrome.”

BMJ Best Practice: “Liver abscess.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Liver Cysts & Liver Tumors,” The Structure and Function of the Digestive System.”

Medscape: “Portal Vein Obstruction Clinical Presentation.”

Journal of Emergencies, Trauma, and Shock: “Management of liver trauma in adults.”

UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital: “Liver Injuries & Home Care.”

American Family Physician: “Gallstones: What Are They? How Are They Treated?”

Cancer Research UK: “Liver cancer.”

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