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Common Causes of Liver Pain

8 min read

By Katherine George

Medically Reviewed by Patty Weasler, RN
  • The liver is the largest intestinal organ responsible for cleaning blood, fighting infections, and assisting our metabolism.
  • While the liver doesn’t have pain receptors, there are some trademark symptoms of liver disease or damage.
  • Symptoms vary depending on the cause, but usually involve pain in the abdomen, shoulders, back, or large joints.
  • Common causes of liver pain include liver cancer, injury, disease, or gallstones, cirrhosis, and infections.

We don’t think about our liver as we go about living our daily lives, but it’s working hard for us all day, every day. A healthy, properly functioning liver is responsible for cleaning the blood, fighting infections, and plays a role in metabolism, says Medical News Today. It’s even able to repair itself if it gets damaged.

As long as our liver is healthy, we don’t pay it any mind as it helps our body’s overall functioning. But what happens when something goes wrong? Even though the liver is able to repair damage, it’s still susceptible to harm which could lead to pain. Here’s a list of potential causes behind any liver pain…

What Does Liver Pain Feel Like?

Our liver is located near the bottom of the rib cage. It’s angled in such a way that it takes up more room on the right side of the abdomen than the left, lying just above the stomach on the left side and the small intestine on the right side, explains Healthline. Liver pain is difficult to diagnose because the liver doesn’t actually have pain receptors. The symptoms will vary depending on the cause.

Any discomfort that is felt is usually from inflammation or damage to the tissues surrounding the liver. For example people with cirrhosis might feel a dull or throbbing pain in their abdomen, back, shoulders, or large joints. Whereas with liver disease the discomfort is more in the shoulders and neck because it causes inflammation throughout the body.

Symptoms That May Accompany It

Pain is a main symptom, but depending on the cause the pain can show up in other areas of the body. According to WebMD, a liver that is hurting might produce pain in the front center of the belly, in the back, or even in a person’s shoulders.

Healthline also points out that because the liver has so many different jobs like producing and storing vital nutrients and filtering out toxins, a person with a hurt liver might notice other non pain-related symptoms. The source lists fatigue, jaundice of the skin or whites of the eyes, dark-colored urine, swelling in the ankles and legs, itchy skin, as well as a loss of appetite.

If liver pain is disrupting daily activities, not getting better, or comes on quickly, it’s a good idea to consult a doctor. Seek treatment right away if you experience jaundice, fever, chills, nausea or vomiting, warns WebMD.

Fatty Liver Disease

Fatty liver disease is pretty much what it sounds like. It’s when there’s a build up of fat in the liver. This commonly occurs in people who are overweight, have diabetes, or eat a high-cholesterol diet, says WebMD.

This disease is dangerous because overtime the damage it does to the liver can scar it and prevents it from doing its job. What’s even scarier is that it typically causes no symptoms. “But it can make you tired or give you a constant dull pain either in the right upper part of your belly, or all over it,” writes the source.

Budd-Chiari Syndrome

A rare liver disease known as Budd-Chiari syndrome can result in liver pain as it causes the liver and sometimes spleen to enlarge. This is because people with Budd-Chiari syndrome have blood clots that block the flow of blood in and out of the liver. As blood backs up in the liver, it becomes swollen and enlarged, explains Medical News Today.

“The buildup of blood causes and increase in blood pressure in the portal vein,” writes the source. “This is the vein responsible for carrying blood to the liver from the intestines.” The increase in pressure is called portal hypertension which causes fluid to build up in the abdomen. Blocked veins redirect blood flow from the liver to the heart causing it to slow down or stop, says Medical News Today.

Liver Cancer

Sadly, many of us are familiar with the devastating effects of cancer. Our liver is susceptible to cancer because all the blood in the body passes through it, explains WebMD. This makes it accessible to cancer cells that are in the bloodstream.

A person wouldn’t start experiencing pain from liver cancer until it has become quite advanced. When the pain does appear it’s often felt anywhere in the abdomen to the shoulder. The source lists the following as other non pain-related symptoms that can appear: weight loss, itchiness, jaundice, swollen stomach, and a general sickness. There might also be a lump that can be felt from pressing on the right side of the belly, says WebMD. If you experience any of these signs, see your doctor.

Liver Abscess or Cyst

There is nothing nice or pleasant about a liver abscess or cyst. An abscess is essentially a pocket of pus or fluid that’s infected and has formed in the liver. This infection stems from germs such as bacteria, parasites, or fungus. “An abscess can damage nearby tissue, it can lead to bleeding, additional infections, and even death,” writes Medical News Today. It must be treated with an antibiotic, anti-fungal medicine, and drained.

A cyst is also a pocket of fluid that forms in the liver, but the difference is they usually aren’t from an infection. They are mostly just uncomfortable, particularly if they grow quite large. They’ll create a “full” feeling in the abdomen, says WebMD. While they aren’t an infection, they can still cause sudden, severe pain in the upper right belly and shoulder. Plus, have the potential to start bleeding.

Portal Vein Thrombosis

One of the ways the liver filters blood in the body is through access from the portal vein. This is the vessel that brings blood to the liver from the intestines, says WebMD. Because of its association with the liver, a person experiencing liver pain could have something wrong with their portal vein.

The source also adds that a blockage in this vein causes pain in the upper right area of the abdomen, near the liver. Other symptoms that would accompany this pain are a swollen belly and fever, adds WebMD.

Viral Hepatitis

Viral hepatitis is an umbrella term for different types of hepatitis. The three most common types (in the United States) are hepatitis A, B, and C. According to WebMD, these are all different viruses that attack the liver and cause inflammation. Viral hepatitis causes pain in the upper right side of the belly (where the liver is). Other symptoms include dark-colored pee, jaundice of skin and eyes, tiredness, nausea, or vomiting.

Most people are vaccinated against hepatitis A and B, however there is no vaccine for hepatitis C, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). They all last a few weeks, except hepatitis A can be a few weeks to a few months. Hepatitis B and C are spread through blood or other bodily fluids, whereas hepatitis A is spread when a person ingests fecal matter (even microscopic amounts) of an infected person.

Alcoholic Hepatitis

Similar to viral hepatitis, alcoholic hepatitis causes inflammation of the liver. This condition is not surprisingly, a result of drinking too much alcohol. “The liver breaks down alcohol. Over time, if you drink more alcohol than the liver can process, it can become seriously damaged,” explains John Hopkins Medicine.

One of the most common symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis is tenderness in the belly (abdomen) or pain over where the liver is located. WebMD adds that a person might lose weight, their appetite, be nauseous, run a low-grade fever, and experience fatigue and weakness.

Liver Injury

Just like any other area on the body, the liver is susceptible to injury. Because it’s such a large organ it is often affected by accidents, falls, and other traumas. Healthline provides some examples of common traumas that could result in a liver injury: blow to the stomach, motor vehicle accident, pedestrian accident, fall, gunshot or stab wound, or industrial or farming accident, just to name a few.

If the liver is bleeding, a person will likely feel pain and tenderness in their abdomen. They’ll also feel pain in their right shoulder. WebMD adds there may also be shock from blood loss.


Unfortunately someone with cirrhosis has irreversible scarring to the liver. Overtime, the condition worsens until the liver is no longer able to function due to long-lasting injury. Medical News Today explains that the scar tissue ends up taking over the healthy liver tissue. The end result is that it blocks the flow of blood through the liver.

“A healthy liver can regenerate its damaged cells,” writes the source. “If the damage is too severe or long-lasting, the liver cannot completely repair itself, and it creates scar tissue instead.” Someone with cirrhosis will develop the condition slowly and gradually, but it only gets worse with time. Eventually the liver begins to fail which results in chronic liver failure or end-stage liver disease. When this happens the liver can no longer perform its vital functions, says the source.


While gallstones don’t occur in the liver, they are an issue involving the gallbladder, it’s more a case of proximity. The gallbladder is underneath the liver so when gallstones develop they cause a pain that is easily mistaken for the liver.

Gallstones are digestive juices that harden into nuggets, explains WebMD. The pain associated with these is often sudden and gets worse quickly. “Gallstone pain may be located in the center or right side of your upper abdomen, between your shoulder blades, or in your right shoulder” writes the source.

Fitz-Hugh-Curtis Syndrome

You’ve likely never heard of this condition as it’s very rare and only occurs in women. Fitz-Hugh-Curtis syndrome results in sudden, severe pain in the upper right section of a woman’s belly. This pain can sometimes spread to the arm and shoulder. It’s the result of a bacterial infection, says WebMD.

The infection targets and inflames the tissue around the liver (doctors refer to this as perihepatitis). This can affect the lining of the stomach, explains the source. Other symptoms that may accompany Fitz-Hugh-Curtis syndrome are fever, chills, headache, and just an overall feeling of being ill.


Patty is a freelance health writer and nurse (BSN, CCRN). She has worked as a critical care nurse for over 10 years and loves educating people about their health. When she's not working, Patty enjoys any outdoor activity that she can do with her husband and three kids.

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