A liver ultrasound is a noninvasive test a doctor orders to examine the liver, its blood vessels, and sometimes the gallbladder. Abnormal results may indicate a person has liver disease or signal an issue.
A doctor may recommend a liver ultrasound in the following circumstances:
- A person has elevated liver enzymes or another abnormal finding on a blood test.
- A person has several risk factors for liver disease.
- A person already has liver disease, and a doctor wants to monitor its progress.
- A person has jaundice, upper right abdominal pain, or other signs of liver disease.
Before having a liver ultrasound, a person should ask the doctor what they are looking for on the scan, how long they will have to wait for results, and whether additional testing will be necessary if the test reveals abnormal results.
Read on to learn about abnormal liver ultrasounds, including what they can mean, how they differ from normal results, and their causes.
A doctor may recommend a liver ultrasound when a person shows signs of liver disease. This might include elevated liver enzymes on a blood test, jaundice, or unexplained pain in the upper right abdomen. Some doctors may also recommend an ultrasound to monitor the progression of liver disease.
A liver ultrasound is not a binary test that produces a yes/no or positive/negative answer. Instead, it uses sound waves to visualize the liver, its blood vessels, and associated structures such as the gallbladder.
The meaning of an abnormal liver test depends on what a doctor finds. In most cases, abnormal results will require additional testing.
Doctors or radiologists may look at the surface and texture of the liver. They may also examine areas that appear brighter on the scan.
They will assess findings based on an individual basis and determine the course of action.
Results from the liver ultrasound can either show up normal or abnormal:
- little or no fatty deposits in the liver
- no unusual growths or lesions
- no blockages of any of the liver’s veins or ducts
- no blockages or gallstones in the gallbladder
- no significant scarring
- a normally sized liver with no swelling
Some people with liver dysfunction may still have a normal scan, and other tests may be helpful to determine the cause of the disease.
Abnormal liver ultrasounds may find one or more of the following structural changes:
- Liver size changes: This could be a sign of several underlying diseases, including acute infections. A doctor may look at other signs, such as blood tests or other results from the ultrasound, to determine the reason for the enlargement.
- Fat deposits: These fat deposits may appear
- Scarring or fibrosis: This can indicate liver damage.
- Lesions and growths: A liver ultrasound may show lesions or growths that could indicate tumors.
- Blockages: Ducts or blood vessels of the liver could have blockages. This could be from an infection or an underlying disease. It may also be a sign of cardiovascular disease.
- Bile duct changes: This may show a block in the bile ducts, which can cause pain. Over time, repeated gallstone blockages may cause inflammation or scarring of the liver.
- Inflammation: This could indicate an underlying disease.
Some of the most common findings of abnormal liver ultrasounds include:
- unmanaged NAFLD
- untreated hepatitis
- chronic alcohol use disorder
Liver nodules and growths
There are also noncancerous, or benign, liver lesions that show up on an ultrasound. These benign lesions may or may not require additional testing, depending on their characteristics.
It is very common, and most people with NAFLD do not have symptoms. However, the disease may worsen without lifestyle changes, especially in people with other liver disease risk factors such as excessive alcohol use.
Alcohol-related liver damage
Although it is not part of the liver, damage to the gallbladder may affect the liver. This is especially true when there is a blockage in the common bile duct, a structure found in the gallbladder.
An enlarged liver, or hepatomegaly, can happen for many reasons. These can include infection or blockage, or chronic liver disease.
For example, unmanaged NAFLD may cause the liver to become enlarged. An enlarged liver may cause pain, work less well, or eventually lead to liver failure.
The next steps depend on what the ultrasound shows. The next steps might include:
- Treatment: Some conditions require prompt treatment. If a person has symptomatic gallstones or gallstones blocking a duct, a
doctor may recommendremoving the gallbladder.
- Additional testing: An ultrasound can narrow down the list of potential problems but may not diagnose all issues. In some cases, a person might need additional tests, such as a liver biopsy, to identify the cause of the liver disease.
- Monitoring: A doctor may recommend monitoring the progression of a condition such as NAFLD with regular liver tests.
Treatment depends on the diagnosis a doctor uncovers. Some potential treatment options include:
surgery to remove the gallbladder
- lifestyle changes, such as an improved diet and more exercise, to address NAFLD
- treatment for alcohol use disorder
antiviral drugtreatment for viral hepatitis
- chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery for cancer
People should ask their healthcare professionals about what they can expect following their test.
The liver is a vital organ that a person needs to survive. Liver disease is serious, as are any risk factors for liver disease. For this reason, a doctor may recommend a liver ultrasound to someone who shows any signs of liver disease.
A liver ultrasound might produce abnormal results in a person with liver conditions or dysfunction. A person should ask the doctor what to expect from the test, whether they will need additional testing, and what the best and worst case scenarios might be.