Hepatomegaly is a condition characterized by the enlargement of the liver to a size that is much greater than normal. A physician can usually diagnose it by feeling the patient's abdominal area. When the liver is a normal size, its lower edge typically does not exceed the bottom of the right rib cage. This lower border usually can only be felt with the fingertips beyond the bottom of the rib cage when the patient takes a deep breath. If a doctor can feel the edge of the liver any other time, the organ is considered to be enlarged.
The liver is the largest organ in the human body and serves many important functions, including metabolizing food into energy and purifying the blood of poisons. The liver also manufactures a substance known as bile that aids with food digestion. A variety of conditions can affect the liver and cause enlargement.
One of the most common causes of hepatomegaly is alcohol abuse, which may lead to liver disease. Fatty liver disease can also have non-alcoholic causes. This may happen when fat accumulates in the liver, resulting in inflammation and the formation of fibrous tissue within the organ. Hepatitis A, B and C are viral infections that can also cause enlargement of the liver. Mononucleosis is another contagious infection that may result in liver enlargement.
Congestive heart failure is a condition characterized by the heart's inability to pump adequate blood to the body. This disease can also cause the liver to enlarge. Hemochromatosis is a disease that results from an excess accumulation of iron in the body, including organs such as the heart, pancreas, and liver. In the liver, this can manifest as hepatomegaly.
Cancer should be considered in the diagnosis of hepatomegaly. Liver cancer is often metastatic, which means it spreads from other parts of the body. Blood cancers, such as leukemia and lymphoma, may also cause a swollen liver.
Symptoms of hepatomegaly can include abdominal pain, swelling, or a feeling of fullness. Jaundice, which is a yellow discoloration of the skin, may also be an indication of a variety of liver diseases. Diagnostic tests that may help to identify the cause of an enlarged liver include radiological tests such as an x-ray, CT scan, and ultrasound. Liver function tests, which are simple blood tests, can also be utilized in making a diagnosis. A liver biopsy, a procedure in which a sample of liver tissue is removed by a surgeon and then examined by a pathologist, is sometimes necessary to definitively diagnose the cause of any liver problems.