Because nonalcoholic fatty liver disease causes no symptoms in most cases, it frequently comes to medical attention when tests done for other reasons point to a liver problem. This can happen if your liver looks unusual on ultrasound or if you have an abnormal liver enzyme test.
Tests done to pinpoint the diagnosis and determine disease severity include:
- Complete blood count
- Liver enzyme and liver function tests
- Tests for chronic viral hepatitis (hepatitis A, hepatitis C and others)
- Celiac disease screening test
- Fasting blood sugar
- Hemoglobin A1C, which shows how stable your blood sugar is
- Lipid profile, which measures blood fats, such as cholesterol and triglycerides
Imaging procedures used to diagnose nonalcoholic fatty liver disease include:
- Plain ultrasound, which is often the initial test when liver disease is suspected.
- Computerized tomography (CT) scanning or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the abdomen. These techniques lack the ability to distinguish nonalcoholic steatohepatitis from nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, but still may be used.
- Transient elastography, an enhanced form of ultrasound that measures the stiffness of your liver. Liver stiffness indicates fibrosis or scarring.
- Magnetic resonance elastography, which combines magnetic resonance imaging with patterns formed by sound waves bouncing off the liver to create a visual map showing gradients of stiffness throughout the liver reflecting fibrosis or scarring.
Liver tissue examination
If other tests are inconclusive, your doctor may recommend a procedure to remove a sample of tissue from your liver (liver biopsy). The tissue sample is examined in a laboratory to look for signs of inflammation and scarring. A liver biopsy may be painful in some patients, and it does have small risks that your doctor will review with you in detail. This procedure is performed by a needle insertion through the abdominal wall and into the liver.
The first line of treatment is usually weight loss through a combination of a healthy diet and exercise. Losing weight addresses the conditions that contribute to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Ideally, a loss of 10 percent of body weight is desirable, but improvement in risk factors can become apparent if you lose even three to five percent of your starting weight. Weight-loss surgery is also an option for those who need to lose a great deal of weight.
Your doctor may recommend that you receive vaccinations against hepatitis A and hepatitis B to help protect you from viruses that may cause further liver damage.
For those who have cirrhosis due to nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, liver transplantation may be an option. Outcomes of liver transplant in this population group are generally very good.
Potential future treatments
No FDA-approved drug treatment exists for nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, but a few drugs are being studied with promising results.
Lifestyle and home remedies
With your doctor's help, you can take steps to control your nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. You can:
- Lose weight. If you're overweight or obese, reduce the number of calories you eat each day and increase your physical activity in order to lose weight. Calorie reduction is the key to losing weight and managing this disease. If you have tried to lose weight in the past and have been unsuccessful, ask your doctor for help.
- Choose a healthy diet. Eat a healthy diet that's rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and keep track of all calories you take in.
- Exercise and be more active. Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week. If you're trying to lose weight, you might find that more exercise is helpful. But if you don't already exercise regularly, get your doctor's OK first and start slowly.
- Control your diabetes. Follow your doctor's instructions to stay in control of your diabetes. Take your medications as directed and closely monitor your blood sugar.
- Lower your cholesterol. A healthy plant-based diet, exercise and medications can help keep your cholesterol and your triglycerides at healthy levels.
- Protect your liver. Avoid things that will put extra stress on your liver. For instance, don't drink alcohol. Follow the instructions on all medications and over-the-counter drugs. Check with your doctor before using any herbal remedies, as not all herbal products are safe.
No alternative medicine treatments are proved to cure nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. But researchers are studying whether some natural compounds could be helpful, such as:
Vitamin E. In theory, vitamin E and other vitamins called antioxidants could help protect the liver by reducing or neutralizing the damage caused by inflammation. But more research is needed.
Some evidence suggests vitamin E supplements may be helpful for people with liver damage caused by nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. But vitamin E has been linked with increased risk of death and, in men, an increased risk of prostate cancer.
Coffee. In studies of people with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, those who reported drinking coffee had less liver damage than those who drank little or no coffee. It's not clear how coffee may influence liver damage or how much coffee you'd need to drink in order to benefit.
If you already drink coffee, these results may make you feel better about your morning cup of coffee. But if you don't already drink coffee, this probably isn't a good reason to start. Discuss the potential benefits of coffee with your doctor.
Preparing for your appointment
Start by making an appointment with your family doctor or a general practitioner if you have signs and symptoms that worry you. If your doctor suspects you may have a liver problem, such as nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, you may be referred to a doctor who specializes in the liver (hepatologist).
Because appointments can be brief, it's a good idea to be well-prepared. Here's some information to help you get ready, and what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
- Be aware of any pre-appointment restrictions. When you make the appointment, be sure to ask if there's anything you need to do in advance, such as restrict your diet.
- Write down any symptoms you're experiencing, including any that may seem unrelated to the reason for which you scheduled the appointment.
- Make a list of all medications, vitamins or supplements that you're taking.
- Take any relevant medical records, such as records of any tests you've had that relate to your current condition.
- Take a family member or friend along. Sometimes it can be difficult to absorb all the information provided during an appointment. Someone who accompanies you may remember something that you missed or forgot.
- Write down questions to ask your doctor.
If you find out you have nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, some basic questions to ask include:
- Is the fat in my liver hurting my health?
- Will my fatty liver disease progress to a more serious form?
- What are my treatment options?
- What can I do to keep my liver healthy?
- I have other health conditions. How can I best manage them together?
- Should I see a specialist? Will my insurance cover it?
- Are there any brochures or other printed material that I can take with me? What websites do you recommend?
- Should I plan for a follow-up visit?
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment.
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions, such as:
- Have you experienced any symptoms, such as yellowing of the eyes or skin and pain or swelling in your abdomen?
- If you had tests done at that time, what were the results?
- Do you drink alcohol?
- What medications do you take, including over-the-counter drugs and supplements?
- Have you ever been told that you have hepatitis?
- Do other people in your family have liver disease?