Inflammation of the Pancreas
The pancreas is a gland located in the center and upper part of the abdomen. It is located next to the stomach and middle part of the large intestine. When the pancreas becomes inflamed, the condition is called pancreatitis.
The pancreas makes enzymes that flow through the pancreatic duct or tube, into the duodenum, or first part of the small intestine. Here, those enzymes combine with bile to aid in the digestion of food. Additionally, the pancreas produces hormones such as insulin and glucagon to help regulate blood sugar levels. These hormones go directly into the blood stream.
When the pancreas becomes inflamed, the enzymes it produces become active and attack it, damaging the pancreas itself. In other words, the enzymes digest the cells of the pancreas, and that realeases more enzymes. Next, these enzymes continue to do more damage until eventually, the process stops. Most cases cause severe pain but damage is limited. However, in some instances, prolonged hospitalization and intensive care is needed.
Pancreatitis can be either an acute or chronic condition causing mild to severe symptoms. Either form of pancreatitis may lead to complications, but acute cases are more commonly seen with sudden, unexpected pain. Occasionally, severe cases of pancreatitis may cause permanent damage to the tissue. Of note, pancreatitis is more likely to occur in men than women.
Causes of Pancreatitis
Pancreatitis can be caused by a number of factors, including the following:
- Gallstones — The most common cause. Often requires cholecystectomy
- Heavy or chronic alcohol use
- Abdominal injury or surgery
- High levels of triglycerides in the blood
- High calcium levels in the blood
- Cystic fibrosis
- Autoimmune disorder
Symptoms of Pancreatitis
A rare but serious problem that may occur as a result of pancreatitis is diabetes, caused by damage to the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas. More common symptoms of pancreatitis include the following:
- Pain in the upper abdomen
- Pain that radiates to the back
- Nausea and vomiting
- Rapid pulse
- Weight loss caused by malabsorption of food
Diagnosis of Pancreatitis
After a thorough medical exam and a review of medical history, the following tests may be conducted to confirm diagnosis:
- Blood test
- Ultrasound of the abdomen
- Endoscopic ultrasound
- CT scan
Treatment of Pancreatitis
Treatment of pancreatitis will depend on whether it is acute or chronic. Firstly, the goal of treatment is to relieve symptoms. Following that, the next step is to eliminate possible causes. Common treatment options for pancreatitis may include the following:
- Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography, or ERCP
- Treatment for alcohol abuse
- Pain relief
- Enzyme therapy
- Changes to the diet
The avoidance of alcohol, smoking and foods high in fat can help reduce the risks of developing pancreatitis. Sometimes, if left untreated, pancreatitis can lead to infection, respiratory failure, diabetes, shock and death.