What is Fatty Liver Disease?

Impaired liver function that contributes to the collection of fat in one’s liver is known as fatty liver disease. Treatment for fatty liver disease is entirely dependent on its cause and the severity of its presentation. Individuals with severe symptoms are considered to be at an increased risk for cirrhosis of the liver and liver failure.

Fatty liver disease, also known as nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), develops when liver function becomes compromised. Normally, the liver is the main center for metabolizing fat, and when its ability to do so becomes limited fat will accumulate, impairing the organ's ability to function. There are a variety of presentations associated with NAFLD, from the most mild that do not cause complications to its severest form, known as cirrhosis, that presents with pronounced inflammation that can induce scarring and contribute to liver failure.

In order to diagnose fatty liver disease, an individual generally undergoes extensive diagnostic testing that includes imaging tests, such as a computerized tomography (CT) scan, and blood tests to evaluate the condition and functionality of the liver and check enzyme levels. In the presence of signs indicative of fat accumulation, a liver tissue test may be performed to assess the extent of fatty buildup, inflammation and damage. A sample of the liver is obtained through a needle biopsy and sent for laboratory analysis to confirm a diagnosis.

Sometimes referred to as nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), individuals with fatty liver disease often remain asymptomatic, meaning they exhibit no symptoms at all. Those who do become symptomatic may present with mild signs that include fatigue, abdominal discomfort and unintended weight loss. Despite the vagueness of symptom presentation, the presence of pronounced inflammation and scarring over time can contribute to severe liver damage that ultimately jeopardizes organ function and leads to cirrhosis of the liver.

Presenting with more complex symptoms, cirrhosis of the liver is a serious medical condition that requires appropriate, proactive treatment. Individuals with cirrhosis will often develop symptoms that include abdominal distention and tenderness, stool discoloration and jaundice. Frequently associated with the presence of alcoholic fatty liver, individuals diagnosed with cirrhosis are encouraged to quit any and all alcohol consumption and to adopt a healthy diet that is low in sodium. Considered an irreversible condition, treatment for cirrhosis is centered on slowing the disease's progression and preventing the onset of further complications, such as infection and liver failure.

There is no established treatment for fatty liver disease other than the implementation of lifestyle and dietary changes. Individuals whose condition may have been caused by the regular use of certain medications may have their doses altered or prescription changed. In most cases, lifestyle and dietary changes, such as losing weight, getting appropriate exercise and adopting healthy eating habits, prove beneficial for alleviating symptoms and improving liver function in those with fatty liver disease.


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