Health Check: New liver scan

Karl Dennis of Detroit is a Henry Ford Hospital patient who has had liver concerns that require a needle biopsy.

"It feels like the air is being knocked out of you when that procedure is done," said Dennis, who's 55.

"The main way we checked for liver problems in the past was with (an) impressive needle -- not really fun. This new painless device will replace the needle for most all cases," said Dr. Stuart Gordon.

Gordon, a liver specialist, said the new machine, called a FibroScan, is a timely and welcome alternative to a needle biopsy as diseases of the liver are on the rise.

"Obesity and fatty liver is becoming one of the most common causes of liver disease in the United States and probably one of the most underappreciated complications of obesity and diabetes," Gordon said.

The liver scan takes about 15 minutes, and it feels like being poked by a thumb.

A normal liver is like firm Jell-O in a rubber glove; a diseased liver is like an old fruitcake.

The machine sends sound into the liver, causing it to vibrate. The machine measures the vibrations. A healthy liver vibrates differently than a diseased one. The process has a fancy name called vibration controlled transient elastography.

Gordon predicted the new tool will become the standard, replacing the needles.

Dennis, who's had both tests, summed it up.

"I would definitely chose over and over again this new ultrasound procedure," Dennis said.

Because the liver makes proteins that clot the blood, when people have liver disease they often bleed excessively. So, any advance like this, which can eliminate the need for needles and potential bleeding, is really important.

The test is also easy to repeat because it's quick and painless.