Diagnosis of liver disease is made difficult by the fact that the symptoms are too vague to be pinned down and hence easily mistaken for other illnesses. There are instances where a person shows no symptoms at all but the liver may have already suffered substantial damage.
When your doctor suspects liver disease, he or she will first want to elicit information regarding possible risk factors to which you may have been exposed. These risk factors include indiscriminate prescription or over-the-counter drug use, past blood transfusions, unsafe sexual activity, alcohol consumption, occupational exposure to blood products (i.e. through accidental needle sticks), exposure to toxic chemicals, family history of liver disease, travel to high risk areas or use or experimentation with injection drugs. Your doctor will also keenly look for signs of liver disease such as jaundice, a swollen abdomen or tenderness in the area of the liver.
Blood tests will be necessary to evaluate liver function and to give information about the state of your liver. Blood tests help screen for the presence of liver inflammation or screen for antibodies or virus particles that might indicate a specific form of liver disease. These tests are called liver function tests.
Your doctor may sometimes ask you to undergo a liver biopsy. A liver biopsy is a procedure whereby a thin needle is inserted into your liver to remove a small piece of tissue that is then sent to a laboratory for examination under a microscope for signs of damage or disease.
A liver biopsy is performed when a liver problem is difficult to diagnose with blood tests or imaging techniques, such as ultrasound and x ray. In most cases, this allows establishment of a very specific diagnosis. More often, a liver biopsy is performed to estimate the degree of liver damage—a process called staging. Staging helps formulate treatment. A liver biopsy is thus a very important and helpful test in the diagnosis of numerous diseases that affect the liver and bile ducts
In some cases, imaging tests may be used to detect specific forms of liver disease or to determine the extent of scarring of the liver. These tests include ultrasound, computerized tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) and magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP).