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Published on February 04, 2020

young woman holding abdomen

Don’t Overlook Your Liver

Liver health is as important as the care we give our hearts, lungs and kidneys. But it’s an often overlooked organ that can suffer damage over time. While it’s common knowledge that heavy alcohol use can harm this vital organ, diets high in fats and sugar, as well as spending too much time on the couch, can also lead to liver damage.

More than nine in 10 diseases, including causes of liver disease, hemochromatosis, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and alcoholic liver cirrhosis all can be prevented or improved with lifestyle adjustments – especially ones where both diet and exercise are changed.

A great way to gain insight on your liver’s health is to discuss your risk factors with your primary health care provider. Together, you can consider the possible need for a liver panel test with your primary health care provider.

“Liver failure can include many root causes, including those behaviors like poor diet and lack of exercise,” said Ali Al-Hajjaj, MD, ACG, who specializes in transplantation and hepatology with Avera Medical Group Liver Disease Sioux Falls. “It can also come from genetics or infections.”

If you’re having any symptoms such as yellowed skin and eyes (jaundice), abdominal pain and swelling, itchy skin, swelling in the legs and ankles, mention them to your primary care provider, too.

The liver panel tests include the ALT, and it measures alanine aminotransferase in the blood. Adults who have elevated scores – 20 or higher for women, 30 or higher for men – should work with their provider to determine the cause of abnormal tests and potentially reverse or prevent further damage. In time, the damage done to the liver, which serves to filter blood, produce important fluids our bodies need and also detoxifies our systems, will adversely impact your health.

“The liver has a unique internal architecture, but a diet high in sugar, fatty meats and alcohol will cause damage to these systems,” said Jeffery Steers, MD, FACS, who specializes in transplantation and hepatobiliary surgery with Avera Medical Group Liver Disease Sioux Falls. “Over time, the damage leads to reduced function. But the liver is resilient, so even if you start now with more exercise and improved diet, you can reverse some of the damage.”

Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver, and it usually stems from viruses like hepatitis A, B and C. A liver panel often will include tests for these conditions. Cirrhosis is when damage continues occurring over a long period of time, leaving permanent scars on the organ and reducing its effective function.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidelines for all persons considered to be “Baby Boomers,” that they should have lab-test screening for Hepatitis C. This infection now can be cured with new medications. Nearly 1,000 patients diagnosed with Hepatitis C have received treatment recommendations from Avera Medical Group’s Hepatology clinic. Surgeons at Avera Transplant Institute conducted the first and only liver transplant in all of South Dakota in 2016. Since then, transplant surgeons have performed 30 life-saving transplants.

The program recently received accreditation with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), meaning that patients in the region with Medicare coverage now have access to liver transplant as an important part of their integrated care at Avera.

Avera has evaluated more than 300 patients for liver transplantation since May of 2016. Avera has listed over 100 patients on the national waiting list, and 30 transplants have been performed.

“Liver disease, when identified in a timely manner, is treatable,” said Al-Hajjaj. “If ignored, it can reduce quality of life and require more extensive treatment up to transplant.”

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