Hemochromatosis is a disorder that results from too much iron being absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract. The two forms of hemochromatosis are referred to as primary and secondary.
Primary hemochromatosis usually arises due to a genetic defect that causes the body to absorb too much iron. When people with this condition have too much iron in their diets, the extra iron is absorbed and builds up in the body tissues—particularly the liver, where swelling can result. Primary hemochromatosis is the most common genetic disorder in the United States, affecting about 1 of every 200–300 Americans.
Secondary or acquired hemochromatosis can be caused by one of several blood disorders, chronic alcoholism, frequent blood transfusions, and other conditions.
Symptoms of Hemochromatosis
Hemochromatosis is sometimes difficult to diagnose because its symptoms so closely resemble those of other conditions. These include:
- Joint pain
- Abdominal pain
- Loss of sex drive (libido) or impotence
- Lack of normal menstruation (amenorrhea)
- Pain on the upper right portion of the abdomen
A definitive diagnosis of hemochromatosis will require blood tests, including a serum transferrin saturation test (to measure the amount of iron bound to a protein that carries it in the blood) and a serum ferritin test (to measure the amount of iron stored in your liver).
Your doctor may order a liver biopsy to check for iron in the liver as well as evidence of liver damage. Since hemochromatosis is hereditary, a test for gene mutations may also be needed.
The most common treatment is phlebotomy, regular withdrawal of blood to normalize iron levels. Patients who can’t undergo phlebotomy may be prescribed a medication that causes the body to expel excess iron. Most patients are also prescribed special low-iron diets and asked to avoid alcohol, iron supplements, and iron-rich foods.
To find out more about the Methodist Center for Liver Disease and Transplantation, call us at 713-441-8839 or 866-94-LIVER (866-945-4837) or send us an email.