Anatomy and Function of the Liver

  • Medical Author:
    Benjamin Wedro, MD, FACEP, FAAEM

    Dr. Ben Wedro practices emergency medicine at Gundersen Clinic, a regional trauma center in La Crosse, Wisconsin. His background includes undergraduate and medical studies at the University of Alberta, a Family Practice internship at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario and residency training in Emergency Medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

  • Medical Editor: Bhupinder S. Anand, MBBS, MD, DPHIL (OXON)
    Bhupinder S. Anand, MBBS, MD, DPHIL (OXON)

    Bhupinder S. Anand, MBBS, MD, DPHIL (OXON)

    Dr. Anand received MBBS degree from Medical College Amritsar, University of Punjab. He completed his Internal Medicine residency at the Postgraduate Institute of medical Education and Research, Chandigarh, India. He was trained in the field of Gastroenterology and obtained the DPhil degree. Dr. Anand is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Gastroenterology.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

Take the Liver Disease Quiz

What are symptoms of liver diseases?

The liver is a large organ and a significant amount of liver tissue needs to be damaged before a person experiences symptoms of disease. Symptoms also may depend upon the type of liver disease.

  • The inflammation of hepatitis may be associated with pain in the right upper quadrant of the abdomen, nausea and vomiting. This may also be seen in people with gallstones.
  • People may have jaundice (have a yellow-orange hue to their skin) because the liver cannot metabolize bilirubin (the normal breakdown product of old red blood cells).
  • There may be a tendency to bleed excessively or bruise easily because the liver is unable to manufacture blood clotting factors in adequate amounts.
  • Fatigue, weakness, weight loss, and shortness of breath because of muscle wasting; due to the inability of the liver to manufacture proteins.
  • Because the liver is involved in the metabolism of sex hormones, gynecomastia (enlarged breast tissue in men) and impotence may occur.
  • In end-stage liver disease, ascites (fluid accumulation in the abdominal cavity), and leg swelling may occur because of inadequate production of albumin by the liver.
  • There also may be difficulty in metabolizing ammonia causing its levels in the blood to rise, resulting in confusion due to encephalopathy (encephala=brain + pathy=dysfunction).

What does the liver look like, and where is it located in the body?

The liver is the largest internal organ of the body and is located in the right upper quadrant of the abdomen, beneath the diaphragm and is protected by the lower right ribs. It also extends across the midline toward the left upper quadrant of the abdomen. Should it become enlarged, the liver will grow further across the upper abdomen and down towards the navel (umbilicus).

The liver is divided into two lobes and has a rich blood supply obtained from two sources; 1) the portal vein delivers blood from the gastrointestinal tract (stomach, intestine, colon) and spleen, and 2) the hepatic artery supplies blood from the heart.

The biliary tree describes a system of tubes that collect bile, used to help digest food, and drains it into the gallbladder or the intestine. Intrahepatic ducts are located inside the liver (intra=inside + hepar=liver) while extrahepatic ducts are located outside the liver.

Picture of the liver and where it is located in the abdomen
Picture of the liver and where it is located in the abdomen
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 4/5/2016

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