Your liver is a hard-working organ that contains over 10% of your body’s entire blood supply at any given time. Your liver is capable of repairing itself when damage occurs but it can’t do that forever. If your liver has to repeatedly repair and replace damaged cells, it can develop a condition known as fibrosis.
The risk of liver fibrosis increases with age, especially as you hit your 40s and 50s, a time when lifestyle habits often begin to catch up with you.
What is liver fibrosis?
Fibrosis refers to an abnormally large amount of scar tissue in the liver. This is the first stage of scarring – if it develops further, scarring can turn into a late-stage liver condition known as liver cirrhosis.
How does scarring happen?
When your liver experiences injury or inflammation, its cells (hepatocytes) stimulate a wound-healing response. As part of this, excess collagen and glycoproteins build up in the liver. If your liver has had to work overtime to repeatedly mend itself, its cells lose their repairing ability. The excess proteins start to form scar tissue or fibrosis.
If the cause is promptly identified and corrected, it is sometimes possible to reverse fibrosis. Unfortunately, though, fibrosis is easily missed, meaning that nothing is done to address it. Without treatment in this early stage, the scarring may spread and turn into cirrhosis.
Fibrosis can sometimes be reversed if the cause is identified promptly and corrected. However, after months or years of repeated or continual damage, fibrosis becomes widespread and permanent.
Liver fibrosis may not show symptoms until it has progressed beyond the initial stages.
When liver fibrosis symptoms do start to show, you may experience:
- Loss of appetite
- Muddled thinking
- A build-up of fluid in your legs or stomach
- Unexplained weight loss
- Jaundice – yellowing of the skin and eyes.
According to one study, 6-7% of the adult population may have liver fibrosis without knowing it, leading to calls for a screening program to identify liver fibrosis in its early and more treatable stages.
Causes and Risk Factors
The most common causes of liver fibrosis are:
- Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)
- Alcoholic liver disease.
Other liver conditions that can cause fibrosis include:
- Hepatitis – autoimmune or viral (types B and C)
- Biliary obstruction
- Iron overload.
These conditions can all cause inflammation or injury to the liver, requiring it to repair itself. But it can only do that for so long without consequence.
Liver fibrosis treatment requires treating the underlying cause and slowing down the progression of the disease.
Treat the underlying cause
To start with, we need to treat the underlying condition that has led to fibrosis. That may involve helping you to stop drinking alcohol or to lose weight, if either of those may have affected your liver.
Your doctor can also prescribe medication to treat conditions such as hepatitis
Medication to slow down fibrosis
There are some antifibrotic drugs that may slow down the progression of liver fibrosis and help to prevent the development of cirrhosis. This is an emerging field of treatment and more research needs to be done.
How do you diagnose liver fibrosis?
If your doctor suspects you may have liver fibrosis, they may order blood tests, imaging scans or a biopsy to assess the health of your liver.
There is another way though. New scanning technology can help us decide if a biopsy is needed or even provide a non-invasive alternative to a liver biopsy.
At Moonee Valley Specialist Centre, we have invested in cutting-edge technology known as the FibroScan® 502 Touch. It’s similar to an ultrasound scan but uses a series of short, pulsed, low-frequency sound waves to measure liver stiffness.
The result of the FibroScan can help us to:
- Estimate the degree of liver damage
- Monitor disease progression or regression
- Guide our treatment decisions.
How can you protect your liver?
Your liver works hard on your behalf so it’s important that you don’t take it for granted.
Looking after your liver is a lifelong job and involves:
- Reducing liver fat
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Exercising regularly
- Eating a balanced diet
- Guarding your liver against toxins
- Drink only within recommended guidelines (or not at all)
- Don’t smoke
- Avoid illicit drugs
- Follow directions on all medications
- Avoid hepatitis
- Don’t share needles or personal hygiene items
- Practice safe sex
- Get vaccinated.
How Moonee Valley Specialist Centre can help
Liver cirrhosis is a leading cause of death worldwide. That’s why it’s so important to diagnose liver fibrosis in its early stages before it progresses to cirrhosis.
That’s hard though. You may have liver fibrosis without any noticeable symptoms. Your GP may refer you to us if they suspect you’re at risk of fibrosis due to your weight, drinking habits or hepatitis status.
If you’re concerned about liver fibrosis, please see your GP and ask for a referral to Dr Nathan Connelly at Moonee Valley Specialist Centre. We’ll listen to your concerns, explore your medical history and, if necessary, recommend investigations such as the FibroScan to help us assess your liver health.
Alternatively, you can book with us directly for a liver scan without a referral from your GP. The scan takes just 10 minutes. Call us on (03) 9372 0372 to book.
*All information is general in nature and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice.