Learn how to perform a liver-focused physical exam
The physical examination of a patient may suggest the presence of liver disease and point towards an underlying cause. There are 14 common signs of chronic liver disease and cirrhosis that you may uncover during a physical exam:
- Spider nevi
- Testicular atrophy
- Caput medusae
- Palmar erythema
- Dupuytren’s contracture
- Muscle wasting
- Raised jugular venous pressure
- Parotid gland enlargement
- Enlarged Virchow’s node
- Hepatic encephalopathy signs
- Neurologic symptoms
Now, let’s dive into each of these liver disease signs in a little more detail.
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Common signs of chronic liver disease and cirrhosis
We may find jaundice when examining the patient’s physical appearance. Jaundice is a yellow discoloration of the skin, mucous membranes, and sclera. This would mean that the bilirubin level in the blood is high, at least 2 mg / dL or higher.
Clubbing is another possible sign of chronic liver disease and cirrhosis. It involves a physical deformation of the fingernails.
Look for enlargement of breast tissue in males, also called gynecomastia. Gynecomastia is seen in up to two-thirds of patients with cirrhosis. It is thought to be due to the increased conversion of androgens to estradiol, which occurs in the setting of liver disease.
Spider nevi, which are clusters of dilated blood vessels on the skin that consist of a central arteriole surrounded by smaller vessels, are also a common sign of chronic liver disease. Similar to gynecomastia, they are also due to an increase in estradiol concentrations.
Also check your male patients for testicular atrophy, which may result from decreased androgen levels.
You may also notice caput medusae (distended and engorged epigastric veins visible on the abdomen) radiating from the umbilicus. These are often a sign of liver disease.
Palmar erythema is reddish skin on the palm of the hand, which is also due to an increase in estradiol.
Dupuytren’s contracture results from thickening and shortening of the palmar fascia. This causes a flexion deformity of the fingers. While the cause is unknown, its presence is often associated with alcoholism and cirrhosis.
Muscle wasting may also be present and results from the inability of the liver to metabolize proteins. If muscle wasting is present (especially temporal and proximal muscle wasting), it suggests long-standing liver disease.
Raised jugular venous pressure
Another common sign of chronic liver disease and cirrhosis that you may uncover during a physical exam is raised jugular venous pressure. Raised jugular venous pressure implies right-sided heart failure which may cause hepatic congestion.
Parotid gland enlargement
Look for the presence of parotid gland enlargement. This is typically a feature of alcoholic liver disease, but not cirrhosis in general.
Enlarged Virchow’s node
An enlarged left supraclavicular node (Virchow’s node) suggests an underlying abdominal malignancy, such as stomach cancer, which could spread to the liver.
Hepatic encephalopathy signs
Features of hepatic encephalopathy may also be present in a patient with liver disease. These include an altered level of consciousness and neuromuscular disturbances such as a flapping tremor (e.g., asterixis).
Neurologic symptoms may also be seen in liver-associated diseases such as Wilson’s disease. In this disease, there is copper deposition in the basal ganglia and liver. Clinical features of Wilson’s disease include liver disease with parkinsonism.
How to perform a liver-focused abdominal exam
Examination of the abdomen should be performed in all patients with potential liver disease. There are three additional steps to perform when tailoring the abdominal exam for liver disease:
- Check liver size and consistency
- Assess spleen size
- Assess for ascites
Step 1: Check liver size and consistency
Liver size and consistency can be judged with palpation of the liver. A hard liver may denote underlying hepatocellular carcinoma. A tender liver is seen with viral hepatitis. A tender, acutely congested liver is due to right-sided heart failure.
Step 2: Assess spleen size
The size of the spleen is also important to assess. Splenomegaly is a well-established finding in cirrhosis and is due to portal hypertension.
Step 3: Assess for ascites
Make sure to look for the presence of ascites in your examination. Ascites is seen in decompensated cirrhosis. Patients with ascites will typically have flank dullness on examination. Patients may also have shifting dullness, which is a change in the location of dullness to percussion when the patient is turned (due to movement of the ascites).
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