No heavy drinker can afford to underestimate the problems of damaging their liver. In some cases, those with cirrhosis may be fortunate enough to receive a liver transplant, but this is only likely to be granted if the individual concerned remains completely dry for at least six months beforehand. So anyone who has been abusing alcohol for any period of time is well advised to consult their GP, who can use scans and blood tests to assess what damage you have caused. They can also provide timely advice on how to cut down and adopt healthier drinking patterns which can reduce the chances of liver disease and other alcohol related problems such as hypertension and depression. Unfortunately, unlike with many other medical conditions, the early signs of liver disease are not always easy to spot by the drinker themselves because the liver has very few nerve ends, and by the time the drinker is feeling any significant pain it could well be too late to make a recovery. If spotted early enough, however, mild liver damage can be fairly straightforward to overcome because the liver has a remarkable ability to repair itself. So seeking professional advice at the first possibility if you know you have been drinking well in excess of the government’s recommended safety guidelines is the surest way of avoiding a death sentence.
Your liver is responsible for processing the alcohol you drink and eliminating it from the body by breaking it down into water, gas and fat. But this is only one of hundreds of important jobs it does. So it starts experiencing considerable strain if you drink heavily. It essentially has to start doing overtime if you drink more than about half a pint of beer or its equivalent an hour.
Just as some employees who are continuously asked to work unreasonable hours handle the strain better than others, no two livers can be guaranteed to react to the excess demands placed on them in exactly the same way. The difference between a disgruntled employee and a disgruntled liver is that the employee is likely to make their feelings known at a relatively early stage.
If you accidentally put your finger on an oven hotplate, you are likely to take it away again pretty quickly. Unfortunately, the liver has no such built-in safety mechanism because it has very few nerve ends. It is therefore quite possible that a problem drinker will not experience any physical pain until they have entered the final stages of alcoholic liver disease, by which time it could be too late to make a recovery.
For this reason it is important that anyone who suspects they have been drinking too heavily for a prolonged period should seek medical advice. Trying to feel your liver at the bottom of your rib cage is unlikely to tell you anything, but doctors can detect damage by using blood tests and, if required, scans.
Fortunately, if liver damage can be spotted early enough it can normally be reversed, because most livers are sufficiently tough to withstand serious abuse by replacing damaged cells with healthy ones. Two or three years of heavy drinking, or 10 or 20 years of drinking slightly over the government’s recommended guidelines, can cause significant damage without being accompanied by any symptoms. Although, if you then stop drinking or cut down to safe levels, the liver may be able to carry on working.
There is, however, the danger that the liver will eventually conclude that enough is enough. The final stages of liver disease occur when it finally runs out of healthy cells and develops cirrhosis. Once it has developed cirrhosis, your liver can’t recover, although you can prevent further damage and increase your chances of survival if you stop drinking.
In the very final stages of cirrhosis, the liver becomes so damaged that the whole body becomes poisoned by waste products which the liver has become unable to deal with. This will lead to the failure of major organs, which is likely to prove fatal. The dying process is also likely to be very painful.