Procedures & Technology

How is a liver disorder diagnosed?

In order to reach a diagnosis for liver disorders, a thorough medical history will be taken by your doctor, noting the symptoms your child has experienced and any other pertinent information. A physical examination is also done to help assess the problem more completely.

The most commonly performed diagnostic procedures include:

  • Computed Tomography Scan (CT or CAT scan) - a diagnostic imaging procedure using a combination of X-rays and computer technology to produce cross-sectional images (often called slices), both horizontally and vertically, of the body. A CT scan shows detailed images of any part of the body, including the bones, muscles, fat and organs. CT scans are more detailed than general X-rays.
  • Esophagogastroduodenoscopy (EGD or upper endoscopy) - a procedure that allows the physician to examine the inside of the esophagus, stomach, and duodenum. A thin, flexible, lighted tube, called an endoscope, is guided into the mouth and throat, then into the esophagus, stomach, and duodenum. The endoscope allows the physician to view the inside of this area of the body, as well as to insert instruments through a scope for the removal of a sample of tissue for biopsy (if necessary).
  • Hepatobiliary Scintigraphy - an imaging technique of the liver, bile ducts, gallbladder and upper part of the small intestine.
  • Laparoscopy - use of a viewing tube with a lens or camera (and a light on the end), which is inserted through a small incision in the abdomen to examine the contents of the abdomen and remove tissue samples.
  • Liver biopsy - a procedure in which tissue samples from the liver are removed (with a needle or during surgery) from the body for examination under a microscope.
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) - a diagnostic procedure that uses a combination of large magnets, radiofrequencies, and a computer to produce detailed images of organs and structures within the body.
  • Percutaneous Transhepatic Cholangiography (PTC) - a needle is introduced through the skin and into the liver where the dye (contrast) is deposited and the bile duct structures can be viewed by X-ray.
  • Ultrasound (sonography) - a diagnostic imaging technique, which uses high-frequency sound waves and a computer to create images of blood vessels, tissues and organs. Ultrasounds are used to view internal organs of the abdomen such as the liver, spleen, and kidneys and to assess blood flow through various vessels.
  • X-ray - a diagnostic test which uses invisible electromagnetic energy beams to produce images of internal tissues, bones and organs onto film.

Common Liver Function Tests

A series of special blood tests can often determine whether or not the liver is functioning properly. These tests can also distinguish between acute and chronic liver disorders and between hepatitis and cholestasis.

The most commonly performed blood tests include the following:

  • Serum Bilirubin Test
    This test measures the levels of bilirubin in the blood. Bilirubin is produced by the liver and is excreted in the bile. Elevated levels of bilirubin may indicate an obstruction of bile flow or a problem in the processing of bile by the liver.
  • Serum Albumin Test
    This test is used to measure the level of albumin (a protein in the blood) and aides in the diagnosis of liver disease.
  • Serum Alkaline Phosphatase Test
    This test is used to measure the level of alkaline phosphatase (an enzyme) in the blood. Alkaline phosphatase is found in many tissues, with the highest concentrations in the liver, biliary tract, and bone. This test may be performed to assess liver functioning and to detect liver lesions that may cause biliary obstruction, such as tumors or abscesses.
  • Serum Aminotransferases (transaminases)
    This enzyme is released from damaged liver cells.
  • Prothrombin Time (PTT) Test
    The prothrombin time test measures how long it takes for blood to clot. Blood clotting requires vitamin K and a protein that is made by the liver. Prolonged clotting may indicate liver disease or other deficiencies in specific clotting factors.
  • Alanine Transaminase (ALT) Test
    This test measures the level of alanine aminotransferase (an enzyme found predominantly in the liver) that is released into the bloodstream after acute liver cell damage. This test may be performed to assess liver function, and/or to evaluate treatment of acute liver disease, such as hepatitis.
  • Aspartate Transaminase (AST) Test
    This test measures the level of aspartate transaminase (an enzyme that is found in the liver, kidneys, pancreas, heart, skeletal muscle, and red blood cells) that is released into the bloodstream after liver or heart problems.
  • Gamma-Glutamyl Transpeptidase Test
    This test measures the level of gamma-glutamyl transpeptidase (an enzyme that is produced in the liver, pancreas, and biliary tract). This test is often performed to assess liver function, to provide information about liver diseases, and to detect alcohol ingestion.
  • Lactic Dehydrogenase Test
    This test can detect tissue damage and aides in the diagnosis of liver disease. Lactic dehydrogenase is a type of protein (also called an isoenzyme) that is involved in the body's metabolic process.
  • 5'-Nucleotidase Test
    This test measures the levels of 5'- nucleotidase (an enzyme specific to the liver). The 5'- nucleotidase level is elevated in persons with liver diseases, especially those diseases associated with cholestasis (disruption in the formation of, or obstruction in the flow of bile).
  • Alpha-Fetoprotein Test
    Alpha-fetoprotein (a specific blood protein) is produced by fetal tissue and by tumors. This test may be performed to monitor the effectiveness of therapy in certain cancers, such as hepatomas.