In 2016, I watched my father die very rapidly from alcoholic liver disease. Although he had been ill for months before, none of us understood that his liver was in danger. He had been to a renal specialist and an internist who diagnosed him with renal disease and uncontrolled diabetes. No one knew that these issues were directly related to a failing liver.
Having spoken to a number of partners and family members of others who suffered the same fate, I made one important conclusion. In the case of liver issues due to alcohol use, the disease usually sneaks up on people. Tragically, many die rapid deaths like my father.
There are many types of liver diseases out there, and all of them cause very similar symptoms as alcoholic liver disease. However, there are some differences that make alcoholic liver disease much sneakier than other liver diseases. I will explain them below as I think the general population would benefit from understanding this condition better. At the very least, it can help heavy drinkers understand their risks better and know what to look for to get help earlier.
Denial and the nature of alcoholism
Denial is a huge issue in the diagnosis and treatment of alcoholic liver disease. Denial is what separates this condition from other forms of liver disease. Although the symptoms of liver issues are vague and confusing, usually people with other forms of liver disease get diagnosed earlier because they seek medical attention.
However, with alcoholism people are more apt to protect their drinking through denial of the alcohol abuse and symptoms associated with illness. This makes getting diagnosed much more difficult. In this sense, liver problems in alcoholism are left to fester and can progress silently until it may be too late for treatment.
The liver itself doesn’t produce symptoms
When there is a problem, other organs like the heart and stomach show symptoms directly from the organ. However, the liver has virtually no symptoms or pain when the organ is affected. Instead, the symptoms of liver problems show up in other parts of the body making this condition very sneaky and confusing.
Furthermore, the initial symptoms don’t really produce tangible evidence of disease, at first. Meaning that liver issues don’t usually show up on routine medical exams unless there is a reason to investigate further. This is why it’s imperative to let the doctor know how much alcohol is consumed so he or she can do more detailed investigations.
The liver is highly forgiving and can regenerate
This is both good news and bad news. The liver is a very adaptable organ and one of the only organs in the body that can regenerate after receiving damage. However, it also confuses things further because the liver can be damaged but the person may not know that. It helps to think of liver function as a battery — the battery still operates well at 50% or even 30%. The liver is quite similar — it can perform all of its duties even at a lower percentage of functioning. However, this means that the person may not know that their liver has been damaged at all. Once the liver hits below 20% of functioning, only then do major symptoms show up.
The early symptoms of liver damage are vague
In the early stages of liver damage, (prior to hitting the lower levels of functioning) the symptoms are so vague that they may be unnoticeable or the person may not take them seriously. The early symptoms are usually things like indigestion, intestinal discomfort, fatigue, depression, changes in the skin, inflammation, and vague nervous system issues.
These symptoms are similar to mild illness or discomfort that people may have for completely benign reasons. Therefore, it can be confusing because people may not make the connection and therefore don’t seek medical attention.
Hopefully, knowing this information can help people who drink heavily to understand their risks better. The most important thing for heavy drinkers is to let their doctor know how much they drink per day and per week. In this way, the doctor can monitor the person over time and hopefully detect liver problems before they advance.
The best prevention strategy to prevent alcoholic liver disease is to quit drinking, however, not all drinkers can or want to quit drinking. At the very least, this information can help people know where they’re at in their liver health so that problems don’t sneak up suddenly.