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Fatty liver disease is an accumulation of fat cells in the liver that is not caused by alcohol consumption. It is commonly called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) to distinguish it from the diseases where alcohol plays a part.

If more than 10 percent of total cells in the liver are fat cells, it is called steatosis, or fatty liver. Many people have fatty liver disease without noticeable symptoms, but it can be dangerous if allowed to progress.

Steatosis can lead to swelling and cell damage, and this progression is called non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). The liver will continue to function for people who have NASH, but it can lead to permanent scarring and cirrhosis if not addressed by lifestyle changes.

Symptoms of Fatty Liver Disease

Fatty liver disease is often called “silent liver disease” due to its lack of symptoms. It is also the most common liver issue: 25 percent of adults and 10 percent of children in America have it.


The greatest risk factor for developing fatty liver disease is being overweight or obese. There is also a high incidence of the disease among those who have type 2 diabetes.

Because obesity and type 2 diabetes are associated with many health problems with more noticeable symptoms, fatty liver disease is often not suspected until it progresses to a serious condition.

Symptoms can include:

  • Fatigue
  • Confusion
  • Weight loss
  • Muscle weakness
  • Nausea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Abdominal pain and swelling
  • Yellowish skin or eyes (jaundice)
  • Swollen feet and legs (edema) from fluid buildup

Diagnosing Fatty Liver Disease

Diagnosis can be done using several methods, including the following:

Blood Test

If a doctor is evaluating a blood sample and sees an unusually high number of liver enzymes, the physician will consider whether it is fatty liver disease. This is checked during most routine blood work at an annual physical.


An ultrasound scan of the liver may be used to determine whether there is any inflammation indicating a liver disorder. However, ultrasound alone cannot determine whether the patient has NAFLD or if it has progressed to NASH.


Diagnosis of fatty liver disease depends on the results of a liver biopsy. During the biopsy, the doctor will insert a long needle into the liver and obtain a small sample of tissue. The tissue sample reveals whether the liver cells are inflamed or damaged.

If there is inflammation along with high fat content, the patient has non-alcoholic steatohepatitis. High fat content alone indicates fatty liver disease, and significant scarring indicates the development of cirrhosis of the liver.

Treatment and Prevention

The same recommendations for general weight loss apply for reducing or halting fatty buildup in the liver. Lowering cholesterol levels, maintaining a healthy diet and a regular exercise routine, and avoiding alcohol can all help.

For most people, fatty liver disease does not progress to NASH or cirrhosis. The growing incidence of the disease is probably related to the increasing percentage of people who are overweight and obese. Efforts to stay fit and live a healthy life have the added benefit of promoting a healthy and well-functioning liver.

Gastroenterology Clinic in Central PA

US Digestive Health offers comprehensive care for GI and liver disorders. Our board-certified gastroenterologists have served Central Pennsylvania for almost three decades.

For preventive screenings or treatment for liver issues or gastrointestinal problems, call your US Digestive Health office today to schedule an appointment at (717) 245-2228 or fill out our appointment request form. We look forward to serving you and helping you get on the road to a healthy lifestyle.


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