You probably don’t think about your liver every day, but nevertheless it’s hard at work, filtering blood from your digestive tract and breaking down harmful substances for removal, among other things. In the event that this vital organ is compromised—whether by disease or injury—there can be a domino effect in which other parts of your body suffer as well, and your health is thrown into jeopardy. However, many people are unaware of the lesser known symptoms of liver trouble, several of which can affect the legs. Read on for four symptoms that may alert you to a problem with your liver, and to learn which other symptoms should be on your radar.
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Liver cirrhosis occurs when the liver becomes scarred from advanced disease, excessive alcohol consumption, or other causes. While cirrhosis is associated with the later stages of liver damage and can be life-threatening in its advanced stages, it sometimes presents with no symptoms at all.
However, one possible symptom of liver cirrhosis is “swelling in the legs, feet, or ankles,” according to the Mayo Clinic. The health organization explains that this happens because “the increased pressure in the portal vein can cause fluid to accumulate in the legs (edema) and in the abdomen (ascites). Edema and ascites also may result from the inability of the liver to make enough of certain blood proteins, such as albumin,” their experts note.
Those with liver cirrhosis may also experience fatigue, loss of appetite, weight loss, jaundice, nausea, and bleeding, or bruising. Additional symptoms may include developing “spider-like” blood vessels on the skin, redness on the palms of the hands, itchy skin, and more.
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While muscle cramps are not typically listed among the most common symptoms of liver cirrhosis, research suggests a link between cramping and the condition. In fact, a 2014 study published in The American Journal of Medicine found that 101 out of 150 subjects with cirrhosis (67 percent) experienced the symptom in the three months prior to the study. The researchers noted that “muscle cramps are associated with significantly diminished quality of life in patients with cirrhosis.”
Though the researchers were unsure why muscle cramps occur in cirrhosis patients, they suggested that a “neurologic, muscular, endocrine, or electrolyte imbalance” could help explain the phenomenon.
While joint pain can have a very wide range of underlying causes, experts say it’s sometimes due to underlying viral hepatitis, a type of liver inflammation that can occur in the form of acute infections, or as a chronic condition.
If viral hepatitis is behind your joint pain, you may also notice flu-like symptoms, such as fatigue, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, reduced appetite, and general weakness. Some people also report having jaundiced skin, dark urine, or pale stool, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
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Experts point out that certain superficial skin disorders are common in cases of liver disease. “Dysfunction in the body’s second largest organ, the liver, often yields changes in the body’s largest organ, the skin,” states a 2009 report published in the Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine (CCJM). “Cutaneous changes may be the first clue that a patient has liver disease. Recognizing these signs is crucial to diagnosing liver conditions early.”
One such skin symptom is the presence of Bier spots, irregularly shaped or “mottled” white spots that can develop on the arms, legs, or hands. “Since Bier spots are a sign of liver disease, they must be distinguished from true pigmentation disorders,” says the CCJM report, which adds, “A key distinguishing feature is that Bier spots disappear when pressure is applied.”
Though most cases of Bier spots are determined to be benign and of no clinical significance, it’s still worth consulting your doctor if you notice them—especially if other common liver symptoms are present.