What causes benign liver cysts?

Updated November 21, 2016

Cysts of the liver are common and can even be present at birth. Generally speaking, liver cysts show no overt symptoms and are benign in nature. In some cases, liver cysts may become enlarged or infected and will then present certain medical problems. However, the overall outcome concerning cysts of the liver seems to be one of a low level of concern for any long-term effect or decrease in life expectancy.


According to the Cleveland Clinic there are several types of cysts that can be found on the liver. The most common is called a hepatic cyst, which is simply a bubble that has developed on the liver. These are usually small and can be empty or contain fluid. Hydatid cysts develop due to the presence of the larvae of the parasite Echinococcus in the liver. In rare cases, neoplastic cysts may develop on the liver, yet these are associated with ovarian cysts and usually do not originate in the liver.


Hepatic liver cysts are generally considered to be congenital in nature. The accepted hypothesis of their origin is that small tumours (microhamartomas) that developed along the biliary tree (bile duct) have become dilated and fill with bile, causing cysts to grow. Abscesses may also develop on the liver from bacterial or amoebic growth in the intestinal tracts that move to the liver. While these can become problematic, they are more often benign in nature.


Most simple liver cysts will not demonstrate any detectable symptoms, unless they grow in size or number. Noticeable symptoms may develop in these circumstances, including a vague feeling of discomfort or slight pain in the area, a feeling of fullness or of being sated without having eaten and occasionally nausea or vomiting. If a liver cyst grows large enough, it can cause respiratory symptoms to occur.


According to the UPMC Liver Cancer Center due to the asymptomatic nature of most benign liver cysts, they generally are not discovered until an examination is conducted relating to abnormalities in the function of the liver or abdominal pain. Liver cysts may also be discovered by ultrasound imaging tests. In cases where uncertainties are present as to the status of a detected cyst(s), a biopsy of liver tissue may be ordered to determine whether or not the cyst is benign or malignant.


Unless liver cysts are found to be problematic due to pain or abnormal renal function, surgical removal is generally not indicated. Dietary changes may be recommended to support the body's immune system, which will assist the liver in processing blood and maintaining healthy nutritional levels. Reducing fatty foods is thought to be beneficial to proper liver function. These may include dairy products, fried foods and foods that may contain steroids or hormones.

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