A liver nodule is a growth inside the liver comprised of hepatocytes, the cells that make up liver tissue. Nodules may be malignant or benign, and a doctor may recommend testing if she identifies a liver nodule, to allow her to determine whether it is a cause for medical concern. Often, they are an incidental finding in a patient receiving an evaluation for an unrelated medical issue, or after death, when a liver nodule may appear in an otherwise healthy liver in a patient who died of other causes.
Pathologists divide liver nodules into two broad groups. One group contains the regenerative nodules, made up of growths of normal hepatocytes that simply grow excessively. Neoplastic, or dysplastic, nodules contain abnormal hepatocytes that begin to proliferate. The nodules can vary in size, and the liver may be studded with a mixture of nodules as part of a disease process.
Some liver nodules are entirely benign, and appear more commonly in patients on birth control and certain other medications. The growths will not develop to a size that could pose health risks by blocking blood vessels, and they will not metastasize to other organs. Other nodules are a cause for concern because of their potentially large size and aggressive nature. Malignant nodules are usually dysplastic in nature.
A doctor may identify a liver nodule in surgery or on an ultrasound. He can take a sample of the growth and ask a pathologist to examine it. The pathologist will check for signs of cellular abnormalities and determine whether it is a health risk. The doctor may recommend surgery or other treatments to manage the nodule. If the patient is already in treatment for cirrhosis or other liver diseases, nodules may not be an unexpected finding. The treatment can address the nodules and make the patient feel more comfortable.
If a doctor identifies a liver nodule, the patient can ask for more information about it. Until a biopsy can take place, the doctor may not be able to speculate about the nature of the nodule or the best treatment options. After examination of the tissue, the doctor can talk about how to move forward with treatment if the nodule is a cause for concern. In patients with benign growths, the doctor may recommend periodic followups to check for changes, as a benign growth can turn harmful. Catching malignancies early can provide access to more treatment options.