Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is a very common disorder that is characterized by unusually high levels of cholesterol and triglycerides in the liver. Many cases are considered benign as they do not cause any noticeable physical symptoms or lead to future health problems. It is possible, however, for fat buildup to eventually cause chronic inflammation, tissue scarring, and possibly liver failure. It is important for a person who has non-alcoholic fatty liver disease to establish healthy diets and stay active to help prevent the condition from worsening. Medications or surgery may be needed to control the disorder in its later stages.
Doctors are unsure of the exact causes of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, but several underlying conditions are associated with fat buildup. Metabolic syndrome, a condition that impairs glucose sugar metabolism and lowers insulin levels, is present in a majority of patients. Obesity, diabetes, and poor dietary choices are the most significant risk factors for developing symptoms. Less commonly, hormonal drugs such as tamoxifen can induce non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
When fat is present in the liver but does not impair the organ's functioning, the condition is called steatosis. Most people who have non-alcoholic fatty liver disease experience steatosis. Symptoms are usually absent, but some patients report acute abdominal pains and fatigue. Steatohepatitis occurs when fat buildup leads to tissue inflammation and swelling. As the condition worsens, symptoms of weight loss, nausea, vomiting, and chronic fatigue can develop.
Rarely, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease leads to cirrhosis, or permanent scarring and hardening of liver tissue. Cirrhosis can cause a number of severe symptoms, including constant abdominal pains, jaundice, digestive disorders, and muscle weakness. Left untreated, the condition can lead to liver failure and death.
When a physician suspects fatty liver disease, he or she usually performs a physical examination, asks about lifestyle changes, and collects blood samples for lab tests. Blood is screened for high triglycerides, cholesterol, and liver enzymes. Ultrasounds and other diagnostic images may be taken of the liver to look for signs of inflammation and scarring. If abnormalities are discovered, a liver biopsy may be necessary to confirm the condition and gauge its severity.
Diet and exercise are the most important elements of fatty liver disease treatment. A doctor might decide to adjust diabetes medications or prescribe cholesterol-lowering drugs to promote faster recovery. If a patient is morbidly obese, bariatric surgery may be considered to take strain off of the liver and other vital organs. A liver transplant is only needed if sudden organ failure becomes very likely. Most people who stick to their treatment plans are able to fully recover from the condition.