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Blood supply and innervation of the liver

The liver is the largest visceral tissue mass in the human body and is located in the upper right quadrant of the abdomen. It is a multifunctional accessory to the gastrointestinal tract and performs such duties as detoxification, protein synthesis, biochemical production and nutrient storage.

This article covers the blood supply and innveration of this vital organ, starting with an overview of the gross anatomy and concluding with a summary of the most important facts.

Contents
  1. Overview
  2. Blood supply
  3. Venous drainage
  4. Lymphatic drainage
  5. Innervation
  6. Summary
  7. Sources
+ Show all

Overview

The liver is the largest visceral tissue mass in the human body and consists of four lobes, which include the: 

  • right
  • left
  • quadrate
  • caudate lobes

It can weigh up to two kilograms and accounts for 2% of an adults overall body weight. The right lobe is the largest and fills the majority of the right upper quadrant of the abdomen (RUQ), while the left lobe is much smaller and takes up only a medial portion of the left upper quadrant (LUQ) from the midline towards the left side. The quadrate lobe is situated on the inferior aspect of the liver between the gallbladder and the round ligament of the liver. The caudate lobe is also found facing caudally and is surrounded by the inferior vena cava, the ligamentum venosum and the porta hepatis.

Right lobe of the liver - ventral view
Right lobe of the liver (ventral view)

It functions by receiving blood from the alimentary canal, the accessory organs of the digestive tract, and the spleen and subsequently filtering it. The filtration process allows it to perform several important tasks such as:

  • glycogen storage
  • fatty acid synthesis
  • clotting factor production
  • toxin and drug metabolism
  • hormone modification
  • bile acid synthesis
  • bilirubin secretion
  • iron and fat soluble vitamin storage
  • phagocytosis of foreign materials that enter the portal circulation from the bowels.

Learn everything you need to know about the blood supply and innervation of the liver, stomach and spleen with these interactive quizzes and videos.

Blood supply

The blood supply of the liver is delivered through the portal vein and the proper hepatic artery. The proper hepatic artery (arises from the celiac trunk via common hepatic artery) brings oxygenated blood to the hepatic tissues, while the portal vein collects the deoxygenated blood from the abdominal contents and filters it, eliminating toxins and processing the nutrients it collects during absorption from the alimentary canal. The portal venous system will be discussed below, so for now, the pathway of the proper hepatic artery, which contributes approximately 30% towards the hepatic blood supply will be mentioned.

Hepatic artery proper (ventral view)

The celiac trunk branches off the abdominal aorta at the level of the twelfth thoracic vertebra and gives rise to the left gastric artery, the splenic artery and the common hepatic artery. The common hepatic artery veers retroperitoneally to the right and enters the hepatoduodenal ligament of the liver. It then divides into the gastroduodenal and proper hepatic arteries, which supply the stomach and duodenum as well as the liver respectively.

Common hepatic artery (ventral view)

The proper hepatic branches consist of the right and left hepatic arteries that supply the right and left lobes of the liver. The right gastric artery runs up the lesser curvature of the stomach and anastomoses with the left gastric artery. Finally, the cystic artery branches off the right hepatic artery to supply the gallbladder and the cystic duct.

Venous drainage

The two major venous plexuses that are responsible for draining the abdominal contents are that of the portal vein, which filters the blood directly into the liver and provides it with 70% of its blood supply, and the inferior vena cava. The hepatic portal vein is formed by the merger of the splenic vein and the superior mesenteric vein. The veins that contribute to the splenic vein include the inferior mesenteric vein and its branches, the pancreatic veins, the left gastroepiploic vein and the short gastric veins.

Hepatic portal vein (ventral view)

The superior mesenteric vein collects blood from:

  • the inferior pancreaticoduodenal vein
  • the right gastroepiploic vein
  • the right colic vein
  • the ileocolic vein
  • the jejunal veins
  • the ileal veins

Test yourself on the superior mesenteric vein with flashcards! Here's how you can make your own.

The veins that drain as direct branches into the portal vein include the cystic vein, the superior pancreaticoduodenal vein and the left and right gastric veins. The venous drainage of the liver itself occurs via the three hepatic veins which consist of an accumulation of central veins and take the deoxygenated hepatic blood directly to the inferior vena cava just before it passes up through the diaphragm.

Left and middle hepatic veins (dorsal view)

Lymphatic drainage

The lymphatic drainage of the liver is split into deep and superficial drainage systems.

The deep system consists of hepatic lymph vessels which follow the hepatic portal veins, therefore most of the lymph will flow towards the hepatic nodes at the hilum of the liver, which drain to the celiac nodes. These drain to the cisterna chyli (if present) and on into the thoracic duct. Additional lymphatic vessels exit via the bare area following the hepatic veins as they join the inferior vena cava. Therefore, some the hepatic lymph vessels drain to the inferior diaphragmatic/phrenic nodes (or uppermost members of the the right lumbar lymph nodes) which drain to the right posterior mediastinal nodes. From there lymph flows up the right mediastinal lymphatic chain and flows into the right lymphatic duct or thoracic duct.

The superficial system transports lymphatic fluid through channels in the subserosal areolar tissue (Glisson’s capsule) which envelopes the liver. The inferior, anterior and superior surfaces drain to hepatic nodes at the liver hilum. The right superior surface will often drain to lymph vessels following the inferior phrenic artery and connect with the celiac nodes. The posterior surface of the liver is conducted towards the bare area of the liver and into the inferior diaphragmatic nodes/right lumbar nodes, which drain as described above.

Innervation

The innervation of the liver is governed by the hepatic nervous plexus which runs along the hepatic artery and portal vein. It receives sympathetic fibers from the celiac plexus and parasympathetic fibers from the anterior and posterior vagal trunks. The exact role of the hepatic nervous supply is largely unknown although it does control vasoconstriction.

Hepatic plexus (ventral view)

Referred pain is visceral pain perceived as somatic pain through the dermatomes of the skin which are innervated by the cutaneous nerves of the spinal vertebrae T5 to L3. It is essentially information that is carried by visceral afferent fibers via the thoracic and lumbar splanchnic nerves. The liver and the gallbladder are governed by the sixth to the ninth thoracic spinal nerves and present as referred pain in the epigastric region of the abdomen, as well as to the right hypochondrium.

Epigastric region (ventral view)

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