Cirrhosis develops when liver diseases cause scarring of the organ. The scar tissue that is left behind is called ‘fibrosis.’ There are four stages of fibrosis — the last being cirrhosis, when complications arise.
“We’ve been looking for alternatives to give us the diagnosis of cirrhosis without having to do an invasive liver biopsy,” said Dr. Alan Gabbard, a gastroenterologist at Mercy Health in Springfield. “This is a relatively inexpensive, easy method to determine how stiff the liver is.”
FibroScan costs hundreds of dollars, compared to thousands from a traditional liver biopsy — and it’s much less painful for the patient. Through a probe, the instrument goes right up against the skin, sends an ultra wave through the liver and a computer measures how fast the wave spreads. The stiffer the liver is, the quicker the wave will move.
Gabbard believes Springfield is the first in the Mercy Health system to get the technology. FibroScan has been available for years in Europe but has recently started to become popular in the United States.
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The results of the scan are instant. A faster diagnosis of cirrhosis means that a doctor can monitor for complications such as liver cancer or bleeding veins in the esophagus. The instrument can also determine if there has been progression through the stages of fibrosis.
“It helps us to follow the liver diseases, if you want to see how your treatment is working or how the disease is progressing,” he said.
Gabbard said there are number of diseases that can lead to a cirrhosis diagnosis, but the most common is fatty liver disease — a condition common in about 30 percent of adults. Of those 30 percent, one in 10 already has advanced stages of fibrosis. He said fatty liver disease is related to being overweight or having diabetes, and many people who have cirrhosis don’t even know it.
“To properly take care of those people,” he said, “you have to know where they are on the spectrum of damage to treat them adequately.”