Evaluation of Abnormal Liver Chemistries

Abstract

Paul Y. Kwo, MD, FACG, FAASLD1, Stanley M. Cohen, MD, FACG, FAASLD2, and Joseph K. Lim, MD, FACG, FAASLD3

1Division of Gastroenterology/Hepatology, Department of Medicine, Stanford University School of Medicine, Palo Alto, California, USA; 2Digestive Health Institute, University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center and Division of Gastroenterology and Liver Disease, Department of Medicine, Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, Cleveland, Ohio, USA; 3Yale Viral Hepatitis Program, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Connecticut, USA

Clinicians are required to assess abnormal liver chemistries on a daily basis. The most common liver chemistries ordered are serum alanine aminotransferase (ALT), aspartate aminotransferase (AST), alkaline phosphatase and bilirubin. These tests should be termed liver chemistries or liver tests. Hepatocellular injury is defined as disproportionate elevation of AST and ALT levels compared with alkaline phosphatase levels. Cholestatic injury is defined as disproportionate elevation of alkaline phosphatase level as compared with AST and ALT levels. The majority of bilirubin circulates as unconjugated bilirubin and an elevated conjugated bilirubin implies hepatocellular disease or cholestasis. Multiple studies have demonstrated that the presence of an elevated ALT has been associated with increased liver-related mortality. A true healthy normal ALT level ranges from 29 to 33 IU/l for males, 19 to 25 IU/l for females and levels above this should be assessed. The degree of elevation of ALT and or AST in the clinical setting helps guide the evaluation. The evaluation of hepatocellular injury includes testing for viral hepatitis A, B, and C, assessment for nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and alcoholic liver disease, screening for hereditary hemochromatosis, autoimmune hepatitis, Wilson’s disease, and alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. In addition, a history of prescribed and over-the-counter medicines should be sought. For the evaluation of an alkaline phosphatase elevation determined to be of hepatic origin, testing for primary biliary cholangitis and primary sclerosing cholangitis should be undertaken. Total bilirubin elevation can occur in either cholestatic or hepatocellular diseases. Elevated total serum bilirubin levels should be fractionated to direct and indirect bilirubin fractions and an elevated serum conjugated bilirubin implies hepatocellular disease or biliary obstruction in most settings. A liver biopsy may be considered when serologic testing and imaging fails to elucidate a diagnosis, to stage a condition, or when multiple diagnoses are possible.

Am J Gastroenterol 2017;112:18-35
Received 11 February 2016; accepted 15 September 2016

Correspondence: Paul Y. Kwo, MD, FACG, FAASLD, Division of Gastroenterology/Hepatology, Stanford University School of Medicine, 750 Welch Road, Suite 210, Palo Alto, California 94304, USA . E-mail: pkwo@stanford.edu