Fatty Liver: Symptom, Diagnosis and Treatment

A fatty liver is characterized by presence of excess fat in the cells of liver. Fat gets accumulated gradually in the liver cells of a person when the diet exceeds the quantity of fat their body can metabolize. Fatty liver is said to be present when approximately 5% of the liver is made up by fat. Though a mild condition, fatty liver makes the liver vulnerable to further damage, resulting in scarring and inflammation of the liver.

What Are Fatty Liver Symptoms?

You may have fatty liver but have no symptoms. Fatty liver often does not produce any symptoms initially. You may have symptoms after many years or even decades. Some of the symptoms you may get are:

  • Feeling of fatigue or tiredness
  • Loss of appetite or weight
  • Weakness
  • Poor judgment, confusion or trouble concentrating
  • Nausea

Your liver may enlarge and you may experience other symptoms such as pain in the right upper part of your abdomen and presence of dark-colored patches on the skin of neck and underarms.

You may also develop cirrhosis or scarring of liver. This may produce the following symptoms:

  • Accumulation of fluid in your body
  • Bleeding in your body
  • Development of jaundice (yellowing of whites of eyes and skin)
  • Wasting of muscles
  • Liver failure

How Is Fatty Liver Diagnosed?

After discussing the fatty liver symptoms, then how is it diagnosed? Since it does not produce symptoms in the initial stages, diagnosing fatty liver is not easy. Abnormal liver function tests done for some other reasons may raise suspicion. To diagnose fatty liver, your physician will:

  • Take a complete medical history.
  • Conduct a thorough physical exam.
  • Order various tests such as blood tests, imaging tests and in some cases a biopsy.

You physician will enquire about your use of alcohol to determine whether your fatty liver is non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) or alcoholic fatty liver. He/she will also enquire about your medicines so as to determine if any medicine you are taking is causing NAFLD.

Who Should Get Their Liver Tested?

Since symptoms are not easy to detect, an early test will be important in early diagnosis and prevention of further damage. Non-alcoholic fatty liver is more common in the following individuals; hence, they should get their liver tested more often:

  • People suffering from prediabetes and type 2 diabetes
  • People who are obese
  • Middle aged or elderly people
  • People who have high levels of blood triglycerides and cholesterol
  • People suffering from hypertension
  • People who consume certain medicines such as corticosteroids and certain drugs to treat cancer
  • People who suffer from metabolic disorders such as metabolic syndrome
  • People who have rapid loss of weight
  • People who suffer from certain infections such as hepatitis C
  • People who have exposure to certain toxins

Approximately 25% of individuals in the world are affected by NAFLD. As the rates of type 2 diabetes, obesity and increased cholesterol are rising in the world, so is the rate of occurrence of NAFLD.

Alcoholic fatty liver occurs in people who drink excessive amount of alcohol, especially those who are drinking for a long duration of time. The risk is even greater for heavy drinkers who are females, have obesity or have some types of genetic mutations.

How Is Fatty Liver Treated?

The disease is treatable. The fatty liver symptoms can be managed and even reversed.

Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease

The first and the most important step to manage alcoholic fatty liver disease is to quit drinking. You can consult a therapist or participate in a recovery program if you require help in quitting the habit. Certain medicines are also available that help in quitting alcohol, either by making you sick if you drink or by decreasing your cravings.

Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease

The first step to manage NAFLD is to lose excess weight by following a regimen of regular exercise and healthy diet. Weight loss is important as it addresses the problems that lead to NAFLD. Ideally it is desirable to lose 10% your body weight; however, even losing 3-5% of your initial weight can make apparent the improvement in risk factors. If you require losing a large amount of weight, then you can undergo a weight loss surgery.

Control of diabetes and levels of triglycerides and cholesterol are also important not only for treatment of NAFLD. Patients suffering from celiac disease who consume a strict gluten-free diet may be able to reverse the accumulation of fat in the liver and avoid development of fatty liver symptoms.

You should get yourself vaccinated for flu, hepatitis A and B, and pneumococcal disease. Liver failure is more likely to develop if fatty liver occurs in association with hepatitis A or B. Persons suffering from chronic liver disease are more prone to infections; hence, the other two vaccines are also important.

In people who develop cirrhosis as a result of fatty liver, transplantation of liver may be an option.

Alternative Medicine

Some natural compounds are said to be helpful, such as:

  • Vitamin E: Theoretically, vitamin E is an antioxidant and can help protect the liver by neutralizing the inflammatory damage. According to some evidence, vitamin E supplements may prove helpful for people who have NAFLD. However, more research is required.
  • Coffee: In studies of patients with NAFLD, it is found that those who drank coffee had less damage to liver in comparison to those who drank no or little coffee. However, it’s not clear how liver damage is influenced by coffee or how much coffee you are required to drink to get the benefit.