Fatty Liver Does Not Show Up In Scans Until It Is Too Late – Here Are 7 Early Warning Signs To Look Out For

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Fatty Liver Does Not Show Up In Scans Until It Is Too Late - Here Are 7 Early Warning Signs To Look Out For
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Fatty liver disease is pretty self-explanatory; it is a condition characterized by a build-up of extra fat in the liver. Typically, fatty liver disease occurs in two ways: non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) or alcoholic liver disease (ALD). Both kinds are equally worrying and suggest that drastic change in lifestyle choices to prevent further damage to your liver. In fact, the symptoms for this kind condition are quite vague and you don’t really know how serious it is until it is too late.

Concerning Health Consequences Of Fatty Liver

Liver cancer or hepatocellular carcinoma (HCCA/HCC) affects millions of people all over the world. According to the American Cancer Society, over 700,000 people each year are diagnosed with liver cancer, with liver cancer ranking high as one of the leading causes of cancer deaths worldwide. Approximately 600,000 deaths each year are due to liver cancer. In fact, the incidence rates for liver cancer have tripled since 1980; mortality rates have seen a 3 percent steady increase each year since 2000. So how does fatty liver disease fit into all this? [1]

Fatty liver disease, whether due to a bad diet or a drinking problem, is a serious condition where the liver becomes inflamed due to fat deposits. The persistent liver injury or damage eventually causes scarring of otherwise healthy tissue, which is now called cirrhosis, a more serious form of liver disease. Cirrhosis is practically irreversible, even with proper diet and lifestyle changes, so it goes without saying that prevention is the key. According to the Mayo Clinic, roughly 20 percent of non-alcoholic liver disease progresses to liver cirrhosis. In 2016, Marengo, et. al. mentioned that the burden of hepatocellular carcinoma can be attributed to the rising rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and non-alcoholic liver disease, which are replacing alcoholic liver disease as primary contributors to developing liver cancer. [2][3]

So what warning signs should you watch out for? Here are seven of the most common signs that you may be suffering from a fatty liver. The first few signs are quite general and can lead to other diagnoses but they are warning signs all the same, especially if they all occur together.

1. Pain

Pain, specifically abdominal pain, usually in the upper right quadrant of the abdomen can be a sign of an inflamed liver. The pain can also radiate to the back or to the entire abdomen. Inflamed liver tissue can be detected during a physical exam, wherein the abdomen is palpated, but usually this signifies that the liver damage is already moderate to severe. In fact, fatty liver tissue is quite hard to detect even in abdominal scans until it is, quite simply put, too late.

2. Poor appetite

If your abdomen hurts, there is a high likelihood that you won’t have much of an appetite. However, aside from the discomfort, a fatty liver that has become inflamed and enlarged may also compress your stomach and lead to a decrease in appetite.

3. Weight loss

A combination of pain and poor appetite can lead to eventual weight loss and the fourth warning sign on this list. You may be wondering why weight loss is a warning sign when obesity is one of the causes of fatty liver disease. If a person is obese or overweight drastically loses weight accompanied by the other symptoms on this list, chances are the weight loss was due to the progression of liver disease.

4. Fatigue and weakness

Fatigue and weakness are general symptoms for any sort of illness. Because of poor nutritional intake, persistent abdominal pain, and weight loss, people affected by fatty liver disease will find themselves with easy fatiguability and generalized weakness.

5. Confusion

Mental confusion can be caused by the build of toxic substances in the blood, which can cause problems with your brain and neurological system. Remember, one of the main functions of the liver is to help detoxify the blood and metabolize certain nutrients and substances. If the liver tissue is damaged, it can cause a build up of harmful substances in the blood, very similar to delirium and confusion caused by kidney failure (the kidneys also filter out toxins from our blood). Difficulty concentrating, “brain fog” and confusion are signs that your liver may not be functioning at optimal levels.

6. Ascites

Ascites is a term used to described fluid build-up in the abdomen. This symptom, along with jaundice, is actually a late warning sign, signaling that the fatty liver problem may have progressed to cirrhosis. Fluid build up in the abdomen is actually a form of third-spacing, wherein the excess fluid becomes trapped in the space outside of the vessels in the abdomen or the peritoneal cavity. The fluid build-up can be caused by a variety of factors, such as portal vein hypertension, hepatic insufficiency, and abnormal albumin levels in the blood – all three of which are caused by liver disease. [4]

7. Jaundice

The most apparent sign, and quite a late warning sign to be honest, is jaundice. Jaundice is the yellowing of the skin, sclera (the whites of the eyes), and mucous membranes. The yellowing of the skin is caused by excess bilirubin in the blood (hyperbilirubinemia), which is processed by liver tissue and excreted in the urine (the reason why our urine is yellow). [5]

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms or a combination thereof, please seek prompt medical attention.


[1] American Cancer Society. Key Statistics About Liver Cancer. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/liver-cancer/about/what-is-key-statistics.html

[2] Mayo Clinic. Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/nonalcoholic-fatty-liver-disease/symptoms-causes/syc-20354567

[3] Marengo, A., Rosso, C. & Bugianesi, E. (2016). Liver Cancer: Connections with Obesity, Fatty Liver, and Cirrhosis. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26473416

[4] Arroyo, V. (2002). Pathophysiology, diagnosis and treatment of ascites in cirrhosis. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15115971

[5] Sullivan, J. & Rockey, D. (2017). Diagnosis and evaluation of hyperbilirubinemia. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28333690

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