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Diffuse hepatic steatosis

Diffuse hepatic steatosis (also known as 'fatty liver') is a common imaging finding, and can lead to difficulties assessing the liver appearances, especially when associated with focal fatty sparing.

Demographics and clinical presentation

Diffuse hepatic steatosis is often idiopathic. However, it may be associated with 1:

Pathology

Hepatic steatosis is due to the abnormal accumulation of lipids, particularly triglycerides within hepatocytes 3-4. These are found in both small and large vesicles. Macroscopically, the liver is enlarged, yellow and greasy. Steatosis can lead to fibrosis and cirrhosis. 

Radiographic features

General features include :

  • mild hepatomegaly (in ~ 75%) 5
  • attenuation / signal of liver shifted towards that of fat 
  • focal fatty sparing
    • islands of normal liver tissue within sea of hepatic steatosis 
    • possibly occur due to regional perfusion differences 2 
    • importantly, compared to intrahepatic masses, fatty sparing has no mass effect with no distortion of vessels 
    • see also focal hepatic steatosis
Plain film

Radiolucent liver sign : liver soft-tissue outline difficult to appreciate. 5

Ultrasound

Steatosis manifests as increased echogenicity and beam attenuation 2. This results in:

  • renal cortex appearing relatively hypoechoic compared to liver parenchyma (normally liver and renal cortex are of similar echogenicity)
  • absence of the normal echogenic walls of the portal veins and hepatic veins
    • important not to assess vessels running perpendicular to beam, as these produce direct reflection and can appear echogenic even in a fatty liver
  • poor visualisation of deep portions of the liver
  • poor visualisation of the diaphragm

Sono-elastography : can assess degree of accompanying fibrosis by measuring tissue stiffness (Fibroscan, Acoustic Radiation Force Impulse) 10

CT

Steatosis causes reduced liver attenuation. This results in:

  •  low hepatic density compared to spleen during pre-contrast and portal venous phase imaging
    • non-fatty liver is normally 6-12HU greater density than spleen 5
    • arterial phase or very early portal venous phase scans should not be used as the spleen enhances earlier than the liver due to predominant systemic arterial supply. Fatty liver can be diagnosed at contrast-enhanced CT if absolute attenuation is less than 40 HU, but this threshold has limited sensitivity11.
  • relatively hyperdense appearing intrahepatic vessels
MRI

Requires both in- and out-of-phase imaging and contrast to be adequately assessed 1. Fatty liver appears:

  • T1 - hyper intense
  • T2 - mildly hyper intense
  • out-of-phase imaging - signal drop out in fatty liver in out of phase

Other MR uses

  • MR spectroscopy - accurate quantitative non-invasive assessment of hepatic steatosis 8
  • MR elastography -  shows promise as method for assessing accompanying hepatic fibrosi9
Nuclear medicine
  • Tc99m sulfur colloid 
    • uptake is reduced in fatty liver 5
    • reduced hepatic uptake relative to spleen (reversal of normal liver : spleen uptake)
    • focal fatty area can simulate an hepatic mass
  • Xenon133 - accurate quantitative non-invasive assessment of hepatic steatosis 8
  • FDG-PET - liver uptake is not altered by presence of steatosis 6

Treatment and prognosis

As long as hepatic fibrosis and cirrhosis have not developed, fatty change is reversible with modification of the underlying causative factor, e.g. alcohol, pregnancy, obesity, diet.

See also

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