5 Ways Your Hands Are Telling You That Your Liver's in Trouble
These warning signs could mean something isn't right with this vital organ.
Many of us take our hands for granted. We use them all day, yet tend to overlook or dismiss issues with our hands as problems we hope will simply go away on their own. But your hands—including the palms, fingers, and nails—can contain clues to your overall health, and certain signs may mean that one of your vital organs is in real danger. Read on to find out what symptoms to look for, and what they could mean for your liver.
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If your palms have developed a red rash and you don't know why, it could be palmar erythema, or "liver palms"—a symptom of liver disease. The redness typically appears on the lower palms, but can extend up to the fingers, and occurs from the dilation of surface blood vessels in the hands due to impaired liver function.
"Palmar erythema can be caused by multiple subtypes of liver diseases and liver cirrhosis," explains board-certified gastroenterologist Harvey Allen Jr., MD. "[It's characterized by] asymmetrical redness that appears in both palms. The redness blanches and feels slightly warm." Nearly one-fourth of people with liver cirrhosis develop palmar erythema, so speak with your healthcare provider if you experience this symptom.
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If you experience "clubbing," a condition characterized by a balloon-like swelling of the fingertips, it could indicate liver trouble. Clubbing is often caused by liver disease or cirrhosis, and is linked to excessive alcohol consumption. Other symptoms of clubbing that signal danger for your liver are softening of the nail beds, reddening and warmth in the fingers, and downward-curving fingernails.
If you notice clubbing in your fingers, see a doctor immediately, as it could be a sign of a serious health condition beyond liver disease. "In addition to liver disease, clubbing is associated with endocrine dysfunction, various cancers, and AIDS," cautions Geeta Yadav, MD, a board-certified dermatologist.
If you've suddenly started experiencing involuntary jerking movements in your hands, don't ignore them. These muscle contractions could signify asterixis, a neurological symptom of chronic liver disease that causes tremors in the hands. This symptom is often called "liver flap," due to the flapping tremor associated with liver disease.
When it is diseased, the liver cannot effectively filter toxins from the blood. As a result, they accumulate in the bloodstream and travel to the brain, where they can impair brain function and cause neurological motor control issues in the hands and wrists. This condition is known as hepatic encephalopathy (HE), and 70 percent of people with liver cirrhosis develop HE symptoms. Visit your doctor if you experience tremors in your hands to determine if you have an underlying liver condition.
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Pale, white fingernails
Pale, white fingernails with an opaque appearance are called "Terry's nails." This condition is a common symptom of severe underlying medical conditions, such as liver disease and cirrhosis, according to a 2017 study published in the Indian Journal of Dermatology. If you have white fingernails (apart from a reddish-brown strip at the nail tip), see a doctor immediately.
"Whitening of the nail bed [can be] a sign of liver failure, diabetes, heart failure, thyroid abnormalities, or malnutrition," explains Liudmila Schafer, MD, FACP, a medical oncologist and the founder of The Doctor Connect. "It's [difficult] to reverse the signs of Terry's nails. However, improving your diet will ultimately help prevent further damage." You can improve your nail health by eating foods high in healthy omega-3 fatty acids, such as nuts, seeds, avocados, and oily fish.
Another way your fingernails can signal liver issues is a condition called koilonychia. This symptom involves "spooning" of the fingernails, where the edges are raised and scooped outward like a spoon. Spooning of your fingernails could be a sign of hemochromatosis, a severe liver disorder that causes excess iron absorption from food.
If you experience this symptom, see a doctor immediately, as too much iron in the blood can cause life-threatening conditions beyond the liver—including heart disease and diabetes. Treatment for hemochromatosis typically involves removing blood from the body to reduce iron levels.
When it comes to resolving symptoms in your hands, Allen says, "Treatment of the underlying liver issue will significantly improve or completely resolve the symptoms. With a resolution of the liver disease, the majority of the hand abnormalities will resolve."
If you experience any of these symptoms, see your healthcare provider right away to check for liver disease and if treatment is required.
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