Condition: Fatty Liver Disease

Fatty liver disease is a common condition caused by a build-up of fat in the liver, that in some cases can lead to liver failure.

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What is fatty liver disease?

A healthy liver should contain little or no fat. Fatty liver disease is a condition where too much fat is stored in the liver cells. The disease is divided into different types depending on whether the cause is driven by alcohol or metabolic syndrome

In most cases, fatty liver disease doesn’t cause serious problems or affect normal liver function. However, for approximately 7% to 30% of people with the condition, the continual build-up of fat in the liver will cause damage to the organ over time. This causes scar tissue to form on the organ which slows down function and can stop the organ from functioning altogether. This is called liver cirrhosis, which can lead to liver failure and liver cancer.

What causes fatty liver disease?

As the name suggests, alcohol-induced fatty liver disease is caused by regularly drinking large amounts of alcohol (binge drinking) or regularly drinking more than the recommended limit (14 units per week) over many years.

Metabolic dysfunction Associated Steatotic Liver Disease (MASLD), formerly known as Non Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD) isn't related to alcohol consumption. There are a number of factors that can increase your risk of having the disease. These include being obese, having type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol, being over 50 years old, and smoking.

What are the symptoms of fatty liver disease?

It’s very common for people to have no symptoms in the early stages of fatty liver disease. In more severe cases, the disease causes liver cirrhosis and/or liver cancer (HCC). These may cause the following symptoms:

  1. Pain or a feeling of fullness in the upper right side of the abdomen
  2. Nausea and loss of appetite
  3. Unexplained weight loss
  4. Yellowish skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)
  5. Swelling in the abdomen and legs (oedema)
  6. Fatigue
  7. Confusion, memory loss and insomnia
  8. Weakness and muscle wasting
  9. A high temperature
  10. Blotchy, red palms
  11. Itchy Skin
  12. Hair loss

As early-stage fatty liver disease often has no symptoms, it’s commonly identified when tests are being performed in regard to another condition. If you are having blood tests, higher levels of liver enzymes may be a cause for concern as this is a sign of liver damage.

To diagnose fatty liver, a specialist may send you for imaging scans such as an ultrasound, MRI or CT scan. Depending on the results of these scans, you may need to have a Fibroscan which is a useful and painless investigation to evaluate presence and quantity of fat in the liver and risk of fibrosis (scarring of the liver). In a minority of cases a liver biopsy maybe required.

What are the treatment options for fatty liver disease?

There’s no specific medication to treat fatty liver currently, although agents are currently being evaluated for use and maybe prescribed in the near future. Currently, some medications may be prescribed to help control conditions associated with the disease such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Weight loss treatments including dietary, medications and surgery are effective in reducing fat in the liver and reducing risk of progressive liver damage. 

Lifestyle changes can help prevent the progression of fatty liver disease. This includes losing weight if you have a high BMI, eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, quitting smoking and stopping drinking alcohol.

In the most severe cases of the condition, liver transplant may be the only way to cure irreversible liver failure or early liber cancers. 

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Jul 2024


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