How Is Hemochromatosis Diagnosed?

Your doctor will diagnose hemochromatosis based on your medical and family histories, a physical exam, and the results from tests and procedures.

The disease sometimes is detected while checking for other diseases or conditions, such as arthritis, liver disease, diabetes, heart disease, or erectile dysfunction (impotence).

Specialists Involved

Family doctors and internal medicine specialists may diagnose and treat hemochromatosis. Other doctors also may be involved in diagnosing and treating the disease, including:

  • Hematologists (blood disease specialists)
  • Cardiologists (heart specialists)
  • Endocrinologists (gland system specialists)
  • Hepatologists (liver specialists)
  • Gastroenterologists (digestive tract specialists)
  • Rheumatologists (specialists in diseases of the joints and tissues)

Medical and Family Histories

To learn about your medical and family histories, your doctor may ask:

  • About your signs and symptoms, including when they started and their severity.
  • Whether you take iron (pills or injections) with or without vitamin C supplements (vitamin C helps your body absorb iron from food). If so, your doctor may ask how much iron you take. This information can help him or her diagnose secondary hemochromatosis.
  • Whether other members of your family have hemochromatosis.
  • Whether other members of your family have a history of medical problems or diseases related to hemochromatosis.

Physical Exam

Your doctor will do a physical exam to check for signs and symptoms of hemochromatosis. He or she will listen to your heart for irregular heartbeats and check for arthritis, abnormal skin color, and an enlarged liver.

Diagnostic Tests and Procedures

Your doctor may recommend one or more tests or procedures to diagnose hemochromatosis.

Blood Tests

In hemochromatosis, the amount of iron in your body may be too high, even though the level of iron in your blood is normal. Certain blood tests can help your doctor find out how much iron is in your body.  

During these tests, a sample of blood is taken from your body. It's usually drawn from a vein in your arm using a needle. The procedure usually is quick and easy, although it may cause some short-term discomfort.

The blood tests you have may include transferrin saturation (TS), serum ferritin level, and liver function tests.

Transferrin is a protein that carries iron in the blood. The TS test shows how much iron the transferrin is carrying. This helps your doctor find out how much iron is in your body.

Your doctor may test your serum ferritin level if your TS level is high. A serum ferritin level test shows how much iron is stored in your body's organs. A buildup of iron may suggest hemochromatosis.

You may have liver function tests to check for damage to your liver. Liver damage may be a sign of hemochromatosis. If you have hemochromatosis, liver function tests may show the severity of the disease.

Blood tests alone can't diagnose hemochromatosis. Thus, your doctor may recommend other tests as well.

Liver Biopsy

During a liver biopsy, your doctor numbs an area near your liver and then removes a small sample of liver tissue using a needle. The tissue is then looked at under a microscope.

A liver biopsy can show how much iron is in your liver. This procedure also can help your doctor diagnose liver damage (for example, scarring and cancer). Liver biopsies are less common now than in the past.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a safe test that uses radio waves, magnets, and a computer to create pictures of your organs. An MRI may be done to show the amount of iron in your liver.

Superconducting Quantum Interference Device

A superconducting quantum interference device (SQuID) is a machine that uses very sensitive magnets to measure the amount of iron in your liver. This machine is available at only a few medical centers.

Genetic Testing

Genetic testing can show whether you have a faulty HFE gene or genes. However, even if you do have two faulty HFE genes, the genetic test can't predict whether you'll develop signs and symptoms of hemochromatosis.

Also, genetic testing may not detect other, less common faulty genes that also can cause hemochromatosis.

There are two ways to do genetic testing. Cells can be collected from inside your mouth using a cotton swab, or a sample of blood can be drawn from a vein in your arm.

People who have hemochromatosis (or a family history of it) and are planning to have children may want to consider genetic testing and counseling. Testing will help show whether one or both parents have faulty HFE genes. A genetic counselor also can help figure out the likelihood of the parents passing the faulty genes on to their children.



Source: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health