Liver fibrosis is scarring of the liver. Your liver is the biggest internal organ. It has many jobs, including aiding digestion, storing energy, making blood-clotting components, and removing waste and microorganisms. The liver is also able to regenerate—or regrow—itself to repair damage.
Normally, when the liver has been harmed, it makes new cells and attaches them to its internal connective tissue structure. This structure is called the extracellular matrix (ECM). The new cells replace the old ones that have died. However, this doesn’t work the way it should when the liver is diseased or the injury is continuous or severe. Instead, the attempts at repair cause a buildup of ECM tissue in place of functioning liver cells. This buildup is scarring. Scars are fibrous tissue, hence the name fibrosis. Another name for liver fibrosis is hepatic fibrosis.
Liver fibrosis is not a specific condition, but rather a symptom of another liver problem. In the United States, the most common conditions that result in liver fibrosis are alcoholism, chronic hepatitis C, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Having these conditions puts you at risk of developing liver fibrosis.
Liver fibrosis causes no symptoms itself. Doctors can find signs of liver fibrosis with blood tests and imaging exams. If they find it early, it’s possible that liver fibrosis is curable or reversible. However, if it remains undetected and the damage continues, it can progress to cirrhosis. The difference between liver fibrosis vs. cirrhosis is cirrhosis is permanent scarring that is irreversible. The liver becomes smaller and mostly consists of hard scar tissue. Once cirrhosis develops, symptoms and problems can appear.
Liver fibrosis treatment relies on treating the underlying cause. This may include stopping alcohol use, using antiviral drugs, or losing weight. In some cases, treatment of the cause can even help in advanced liver fibrosis stages. The liver will slowly heal itself with time.
Left untreated, fibrosis and cirrhosis can lead to liver failure. Regular medical care and blood tests can help spot changes in your liver function before it becomes severe.