Liver elastography is a type of imaging test that can help determine the stiffness of your liver.

Healthcare professionals mainly use it to diagnose liver disease, such as cirrhosis. They can also use the procedure to monitor the severity of an existing disease or to see how previous treatments have worked.

Liver elastography comes with minimal risks. The test is not painful, but it might not be appropriate for everyone.

Read on to learn about liver elastography, including the different types, potential risks, and what the results mean.

Liver elastography is a noninvasive imaging test. This means it happens outside your body, rather than inside.

The test measures the stiffness, or elasticity, of your liver tissue. This may help determine if you have fibrosis.

Fibrosis is a buildup of scar tissue, caused by persistent inflammation in the liver. Specifically, fibrosis involves the production of too much collagen, which can stiffen the liver tissue. This may reduce blood flow to the liver and decrease liver function.

Without treatment, fibrosis can cause serious liver problems, such as:

Liver elastography uses low frequency sound or radio waves to check the elasticity of the liver. The waves pass through the liver and their speed is measured. The waves will move faster through stiffer liver tissues.

Doctors can also use liver elastography to check the health of your liver and help reduce the risk of future concerns.

Types of liver elastography

Liver elastography can be done in two different ways:

  • Ultrasound elastography: Also called transient elastography, this test uses sound waves to check the stiffness of liver tissue. It uses an ultrasound device called FibroScan.
  • Magnetic resonance elastography: This test combines ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging, also known as MRI. An MRI creates images of your liver tissue using magnets and radio waves.
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Healthcare professionals primarily use liver elastography to diagnose liver disease.

Your doctor might use the test in place of a liver biopsy, which involves removing a sample of liver tissue. Liver elastography is less invasive than a liver biopsy.

A liver elastography can also:

  • predict the risk of liver issues
  • check the severity of existing liver disease
  • determine treatment for liver conditions
  • check your response to treatments

Both types of liver elastography tests are painless and don’t involve any incisions. They’re noninvasive tests.

You may be asked to avoid eating for 6 to 8 hours before the test. The test usually happens as an outpatient procedure at a clinic, health center, or hospital. You will be able to go home shortly afterward.

Depending on which type of test you receive, here’s what you can expect during each procedure:

Ultrasound elastography

Ultrasound elastography will involve the following steps:

  1. You’ll lie down on an elevated exam table.
  2. You’ll lift up your shirt to expose the right side of your abdomen.
  3. The technician will then apply a clear water-based gel to your abdomen.
  4. The technician will slide a transducer wand over your abdomen. A transducer is a small handheld device that produces sound waves.
  5. The transducer will record the sound waves as they bounce off your liver. This creates images of your liver tissue.

The test takes about 5 minutes. Yet it may be done as part of a standard ultrasound, which may take about 30 minutes in total.

MRI elastography

The procedure involves the following steps:

  1. You’ll lie down on a moveable examination table. You may be given earplugs or headphones since the MRI machine makes a loud noise.
  2. The technician will place a device called a driver on the right side of your lower chest. They may also place coils that send and receive waves near the area.
  3. The technician will then slide the exam table into a tunnel-shaped MRI machine.
  4. You’ll be asked to hold your breath for short periods of time. During this time, the driver will send radio waves to your liver.

An MRI elastography takes about 5 minutes. It’s usually part of a standard liver MRI test, which may take about 45 minutes.

The results of liver elastography indicate the stiffness of your liver. The stiffer the tissue, the more fibrosis is present.

The degree of scarring can be categorized as:

  • none
  • mild
  • moderate
  • advanced (cirrhosis)

Your doctor may request additional tests to confirm the results, such as a liver biopsy or liver function blood tests.

Liver elastography is a safe procedure. Even so, it might not be ideal for some people.

It’s not recommended for individuals who have:

  • fluid in the abdomen, or ascites, which can block waves being sent to the liver
  • acute hepatitis, which increases the stiffness of liver tissue
  • heart failure, which can stiffen the liver
  • severe obesity
  • difficulty lying flat on their back

An MRI elastography specifically isn’t recommended for people who:

  • have dental braces or implanted metal devices, like a pacemaker
  • are pregnant or think they might be pregnant

Liver elastography can help your doctor diagnose liver disease. It’s a quick, painless imaging test that uses sound or radio waves to measure the stiffness of your liver tissue.

The stiffer the tissue, the more fibrosis your liver has. Fibrosis involves scarring that reduces liver function. This can lead to serious liver conditions like cirrhosis, liver cancer, and liver failure.

Liver elastography is a tool that can help health professionals diagnose fibrosis and other liver diseases. If you have questions or concerns about this test, be sure to discuss them with your doctor.