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What Is Fatty Liver Disease?

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Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

March 27, 2024

Table of Contents

The liver is the largest internal organ in your body, and it plays key roles in digesting food, storing energy, and eliminating toxins. Fatty liver disease is a condition where fat accumulates in the liver. This condition manifests in two primary forms:

  1. NAFLD (nonalcoholic fatty liver disease)
  2. SLD (steatotic liver disease)

SLD, formerly known as fatty liver disease, underwent a terminology update in 2023. This change was made to represent the condition’s causes and various subtypes more precisely. For instance, while body-related factors like obesity can heighten the risk of steatotic liver disease, there are many risk elements that are not connected to weight or BMI (body mass index). This shift in naming was also aimed at eliminating language that could be seen as stigmatizing toward individuals diagnosed with SLD.

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SLD is characterized by an excessive accumulation of fat in the liver. This condition can be attributed to metabolic issues or extensive alcohol consumption. The impact of SLD varies. In some cases, the fat buildup might not lead to significant concerns, but in others, it can result in liver damage. Fortunately, SLD can often be prevented or reversed through medications and adjustments in lifestyle. Read on to discover:

  • What does a fatty liver mean?
  • How to reverse fatty liver disease.
  • What is the cause of fatty liver disease?

Fatty Liver Disease Symptoms

Symptoms of fatty liver disease do not always manifest intially. However, when symptoms do occur, fatty liver disease signs may include:

  • Pain or a sensation of fullness in the upper abdomen
  • Severe tiredness or weakness

Symptoms are more frequently noticed when SLD advances to fatty liver cirrhosis. At this stage, you might experience:

  • Nausea
  • Appetite loss
  • Weight loss
  • Jaundice
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Edema (swelling in the feet, legs, or hands)
  • Bleeding in the stomach, esophagus, or rectum
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Treatment for Fatty Liver Disease

For managing nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, doctors often advise weight loss, as it can help reduce liver fat, inflammation, and fibrosis. If a particular medication is suspected to contribute to NAFLD, discontinuation may be recommended. Consult with a doctor before stopping any medication. A gradual withdrawal or a switch to an alternative medication may be necessary.

Currently, there are no specific medications approved for treating NAFLD. Research is ongoing to explore the potential benefits of vitamin E and certain diabetes medications, but further studies are required to establish their effectiveness.

The primary treatment for alcohol-related fatty liver disease involves quitting alcohol. Support for this is available in the form of inpatient or outpatient rehab. Certain FDA-approved medications can assist in this process, either by reducing alcohol cravings or by inducing unpleasant effects if alcohol is consumed.

Both alcoholic fatty liver disease and a subtype of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease – NASH (nonalcoholic steatohepatitis) – have the potential to progress to cirrhosis. For complications arising from cirrhosis, doctors may use various medical treatments, surgeries, and procedures. In cases where cirrhosis leads to liver failure, a liver transplant might be necessary.

How to Know if You Have Fatty Liver Disease

Since SLD often doesn’t manifest symptoms, it might be your healthcare provider who first detects a potential issue. This detection could be through elevated liver enzymes identified in a blood test conducted for other reasons. High liver enzyme levels indicate liver injury.

For diagnosing SLD, your healthcare provider may undertake the following steps:

  • Taking a detailed medical history, including questions about any existing health conditions, your alcohol consumption habits, and the medications you use.
  • Conducting a physical examination to look for signs of inflammation, such as an enlarged liver, or indicators of cirrhosis like jaundice.
  • Utilizing imaging techniques like an ultrasound, CT scan (computed tomography scan), or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to inspect your liver for signs of inflammation and scarring. A specialized ultrasound known as FibroScan might be used to assess the extent of fat and scar tissue in the liver.
  • Performing a liver biopsy, which involves taking a tissue sample from the liver. This procedure is essential for differentiating between stages of liver disease.


What does a fatty liver mean?

A fatty liver means that there is an accumulation of excess fat in the liver cells. This can interfere with the liver’s ability to function properly.

What is life expectancy with fatty liver disease?

The life expectancy with fatty liver disease varies greatly and can be influenced by various factors, such as the stage of the disease, overall health, and lifestyle choices. Many people can manage the condition with diet and lifestyle changes.

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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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