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Fatty liver disease is incredibly prevalent in the United States. Some estimates place the number of Americans with non-alcoholic fatty liver at over 30%, that’s around 100 million people in this country! Liver diseases are deadly serious; the liver is a critical organ and without it we cannot survive. The biggest problem with all liver diseases is that they frequently progress without symptoms. Because of this, the disease may progress to a dangerous or irreversible stage before it is even detected. Clearly, early, and routine testing for people at risk is critical.
We can’t see the liver from the outside, so the only way to learn about how it is doing is by looking at it. We can look through the skin using technology or under a microscope using a biopsy.
A biopsy – looking at a section of the liver under the microscope – is the “gold standard” of liver diagnostic techniques. This has drawbacks, however. Patients typically need to dedicate half a day to the procedure, and there can be rare complications. A biopsy is an invasive procedure requiring a piece of the liver be taken and examined. It is a critical piece of the liver diagnosis pie but is not a routine procedure to be done without cause.
Imagining techniques can be very effective in diagnosing a fatty liver. Some techniques, such as a CAT scan and ultrasound, can’t diagnose the amount of scarring on the liver but can give an indication that there is fat present. CAT scans use x-rays, but imaging is otherwise safe. An ultrasound is fast and non-invasive. It is an excellent first step that many doctors use when they suspect a fatty liver. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is the next best diagnostic procedure to a liver biopsy. With an MRI, doctors can clearly see the state of the liver. They are expensive, however. This again means they are an excellent tool for those who are known to have fatty liver but may not be an option for all patients to use regularly.
Ultrasonic elastography is a different technique. It is commonly called Fibroscan, after the manufacturer of the diagnostic tool. Fibroscan uses sound waves to gently shake the liver and measure how it responds. The liver will stretch slightly. In a healthy liver, the tissue stretches more, but hard scar tissue is less elastic. The fibroscan can interpret the difference and determine how much fat and scar tissue is present. The test is very similar to an ultrasound; it is painless, fast, and safe. The fibroscan does not replace other imaging techniques but is cheap and effective at determining the stage of fatty liver present. Unlike other techniques, a Fibroscan can be done routinely for anyone who is at risk of having fatty liver.
Fibroscans are very popular around the world, including in Europe, Asia, South America, and Canada. It is a cheap procedure with little reimbursement for practitioners, which unfortunately prevents widespread use in the USA. Risk factors for non-alcoholic fatty liver include being overweight or obese, being prediabetic or having diabetes, and eating a high-fat diet. If you are concerned about fatty liver, talk to your primary care physician and/or contact ENCORE Research Group for a complimentary Fibroscan.
Written by Benton Lowey-Ball, BS Behavioral Neuroscience
Afdhal, N. H. (2012). Fibroscan (transient elastography) for the measurement of liver fibrosis. Gastroenterology & hepatology, 8(9), 605.
Koren, M. (Host). (2022, July 20). Common fibroscan technology questions [Audio podcast episode]. In Medevidence! Truth behind the data. ENCORE Research Group. https://encoredocs.com/medevidence/
Koren, M. (Host). (2022, July 13). You cannot live without your liver [Audio podcast episode]. In Medevidence! Truth behind the data. ENCORE Research Group. https://encoredocs.com/medevidence