MedWatch Today: Less invasive way to diagnose fatty liver disease

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Fatty liver disease is a serious condition caused by the accumulation of fat in the liver. While heavy drinking is one cause of fatty liver disease, it’s possible to get it even if you don’t drink. Doctors explain, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease can be caused by an unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, or being overweight. This serious condition can lead to liver scarring, and even liver cancer.

Doctors visits have not always been a pleasant experience for Fresno resident Evelyn Hickson.

Evelyn commented, “It’s been challenging in different ways, you know? As someone who’s struggled with her weight all her life, when you sit down in front of a doctor, and they do the, ‘You’ve got to eat less, move more’ thing, it’s like I’ve heard this all my life.”

Evelyn’s list of health issues include fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, and anemia. She was also diagnosed with fatty liver disease.

“At my worst, what I feel is really extreme exhaustion, tired… you feel flu-ish.”

Dr. Marina Roytman is the liver program director at UCSF Fresno. She said, “Fatty liver disease is literally as it sounds, is an accumulation of fat in the liver… Having an accumulation of fat in the liver, overtime, can be as damaging to the liver as drinking alcohol or having chronic hepatitis C.”

Dr. Roytman said those at most at risk for fatty liver disease are people who are overweight.

“Other things include having high cholesterol, having high blood pressure, poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, lack of exercise, and to go backwards, second to the obesity, the strongest risk factor is obesity that happens around our waist. It’s called central obesity,” said Dr. Roytman.

Diagnosing fatty liver disease can be difficult because patients may not experience any symptoms.

Dr. Roytman stated, “You may have no symptom whatsoever, you may feel a little fatigue, maybe not your usual energy level, maybe a little discomfort on the right side of your abdomen under the ribcage.”

When Evelyn was diagnosed years ago with fatty liver disease, biopsies were taken from her liver, which was a much more painful and invasive procedure. But Dr. Roytman said new technology like the FibroScan can detect scarring in the liver, and it’s not so invasive to the patient.

“If the liver is full of fat deposits, remember we talked about that the fat is not around the liver, but inside the liver, so the sound wave is going to bump into those fatty deposits, and it’s going to get smaller and smaller and that’s called attenuation,” said Dr. Roytman.

Evelyn added, “The FibroScan, which wasn’t available technology when I was first diagnosed, so that was really cool and doesn’t hurt at all.”

In the past, it was believed that the amount of liver fibrosis was unchangeable. But doctors have since learned, some of the scarring can be reversed.

Dr. Roytman said, “In a person, who let’s say is 200 pounds, right, which will be overweight or obese, they only need to lose 10-percent of their body weight, which will be 20 pounds in order not to only lose the fat in the liver, but to reduce the scarring in the liver.”

That means this technology, not only gives information, it can give hope.

Evelyn reports, her health is stable today. And since meeting Dr. Roytman, more than two years ago, her life has changed for the better.

“She’s been really cheering me on. I’ve lost 20 pounds, I’ve changed my diet, I’m feeling better from that standpoint,” ended Evelyn.

Dr. Roytman said FibroScan can also be used for pediatric patients to help diagnose fatty liver disease, which she says, is a growing problem among American children due to poor diet and lack of exercise.

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