A Guide to Liver Pain

Medically Reviewed By Kelsey Trull, PA-C

Liver pain can be hard to identify. The liver itself does not have pain receptors and cannot feel pain. However, capsule surrounding the liver has pain receptors. Therefore, irritation or pressure on the capsule is most often the source of pain. 

This article describes the possible causes and treatments of liver pain.

What is liver pain?

Woman with hand over her upper abdomen
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Pain from the liver capsule usually affects the upper right part of the abdomen Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source , often under the rib cage. It is typically due to swelling of the liver, stretching of the liver’s surface, or any injury that puts pressure on the capsule.

People often perceive pain from the liver area in the right shoulder. Doctors call this referred pain.

It is easy to interpret general abdominal pain as liver pain. Even upper right quadrant pain is often due to other problems. Causes of general abdominal pain include gallstones, intestinal pain, pancreatitis, or other abdominal disorders. 

Seek prompt medical care if you have pain in the upper right abdomen. Other concerning symptoms include:

What other symptoms might occur with liver pain?

Liver pain may occur with other symptoms. Symptoms vary depending on the disease, disorder, or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the digestive tract may also involve other body systems.

Gastrointestinal symptoms that may occur along with liver pain

Liver pain may accompany other symptoms affecting the gastrointestinal (GI) system, including:

Other symptoms that may occur along with liver pain

Liver pain may accompany symptoms that affect other body systems, including:

What causes liver pain?

Several disorders can cause upper right quadrant or liver pain. Causes that stem from the liver itself include:

Even if you feel it in the liver area of the upper right quadrant, abdominal pain can be due to problems other than liver diseases. Other sources of pain in this region include:

These other conditions can produce liver pain by irritating or putting pressure on the liver.

Common causes of liver pain

Liver pain may be the result of various liver-related disorders, including:

  • ascites, which is a buildup of fluid in the abdomen and is often a complication of cirrhosis
  • autoimmune disease 
  • bile duct disease
  • cirrhosis, which is scarring of the liver that causes liver dysfunction
  • hepatitis, which is liver inflammation
  • hepatomegaly, which is an enlarged liver
  • liver abscess
  • liver cancer
  • liver failure
  • noncancerous tumor 

How doctors diagnose the causes of liver pain

To diagnose your condition, your doctor will ask you several questions about your liver pain, including:

  • How long have you had this pain?
  • Is the pain always in your upper right abdomen? Does it ever travel?
  • Have you had any abdominal swelling, distention, or bloating?
  • Have you had a fever or chills?
  • Have you seen changes in your skin, such as color changes, new blood vessels, or itching?
  • Have you noticed any increase in your sweating?
  • What medications are you taking?
  • How much alcohol would you say you consume over a given time period? If you drink, does drinking have any effect on your pain?

Your doctor may also order:

  • Liver function tests: These simple blood tests check liver enzymes, liver proteins, and bilirubin levels.
  • Liver biopsy: A liver biopsy takes a tissue sample for examination to determine if there is swelling or disease present.

How do you treat liver pain?

Since liver pain is a symptom, treatment depends on the underlying condition. However, you can take general actions to protect your liver and keep it healthy. These actions include:

  • asking your doctor for a hepatitis C screening
  • eating a healthy, balanced diet
  • getting hepatitis A and hepatitis B vaccines
  • limiting or eliminating alcohol
  • losing weight, if necessary
  • talking with your doctor or pharmacist before taking any medication or supplement

What are the potential complications of liver pain?

In some cases, liver pain can be due to a serious disease, disorder, or condition. The possible complications will vary depending on the underlying cause. Complications may include:

Summary

Liver pain is usually due to conditions affecting the capsule surrounding it. The liver itself cannot feel pain. Liver conditions can cause swelling that distends or irritates the capsule. Other conditions outside the liver can put pressure on the organ or irritate it.

Treatment depends on the underlying cause of the pain. Caring for your liver includes curbing alcohol intake, eating healthy, and protecting yourself from hepatitis.

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  1. Bajaj, J. S. (n.d.). Cirrhosis. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/liver-disease/cirrhosis
  2. Diagnosing liver disease - liver biopsy and liver function tests. (2020). https://liverfoundation.org/for-patients/about-the-liver/diagnosing-liver-disease/
  3. Diseases of the liver. (2021). https://liverfoundation.org/for-patients/about-the-liver/diseases-of-the-liver/
  4. Fatty liver disease. (2021). https://medlineplus.gov/fattyliverdisease.html
  5. Joshi, G., et al. (2018). US of right upper quadrant pain in the emergency department: Diagnosing beyond gallbladder and biliary disease. https://pubs.rsna.org/doi/full/10.1148/rg.2018170149
  6. Klinge, M., et al. (2018). The assessment and management of pain in cirrhosis. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5849403/
  7. Progression of liver disease. (2022). https://liverfoundation.org/for-patients/about-the-liver/the-progression-of-liver-disease/

Medical Reviewer: Kelsey Trull, PA-C
Last Review Date: 2022 Apr 29
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