Pancreatitis

The pancreas is a large gland behind the stomach and next to the small intestine. The pancreas has 2 main functions:

  • It makes enzymes, which help digest proteins, fats, and carbohydrates before they can be absorbed in the intestine.
  • It makes hormones (chemicals made from glands), the most important of which is insulin, which control how the body uses and stores sugar (glucose), its main source of energy.

Pancreatitis is a disease in which the pancreas becomes inflamed. Pancreatic damage happens when the digestive enzymes are activated before they are released into the small intestine and begin attacking the pancreas.

There are two forms of pancreatitis – Acute and Chronic.

Chronic pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas that does not heal or improve – it gets worse over time and leads to permanent damage. Chronic pancreatitis eventually impairs a patient’s ability to digest food and make pancreatic hormones. Chronic pancreatitis often develops in patients between the ages of 30 and 40, and is more common in men than women.

Whereas there are causes of chronic pancreatitis that are unknown; several factors have been identified to cause chronic pancreatitis:

  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Autoimmune conditions (when the body’s immune system attacks its own body)
  • Genetic mutations due to cystic fibrosis
  • Blocked pancreatic duct or common bile duct
  • Familial pancreatitis (runs in the family—with 2 or more immediate family members with a history of pancreatitis)

Symptoms of Chronic Pancreatitis

Most individuals with chronic pancreatitis experience upper abdominal pain, although some have no pain at all. The pain may spread to the back, become worse with eating or drinking, and become constant and disabling. Other symptoms include the following:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Losing weight without trying
  • Oily, smelly stools (steatorrhea)

Individuals with chronic pancreatitis frequently lose weight, even when their appetite and eating habits are normal. The weight loss occurs because the body does not secrete enough pancreatic enzymes to digest food, so nutrients are not absorbed normally, leading to malnutrition.

Acute Pancreatitis

Acute pancreatitis is an inflammatory condition of the pancreas that is painful and at times deadly. Diagnosis of pancreatic problems is often difficult and treatments are therefore delayed because the organ is relatively inaccessible.

Causes and Symptoms of Acute Pancreatitis

The most common cause of acute pancreatitis is stones in the gallbladder. Gallstones pass through the common bile duct to enter the small intestine. At the entry of the small intestine, the main pancreatic duct joins or lies immediately next to the common bile duct. It is believed that stones that get stuck in the common bile duct impinge on the main pancreatic duct, causing an obstruction of the normal flow of pancreatic fluid and leading to pancreatic injury. Another way that a stone can cause pancreatitis is by causing a backflow of bile into the pancreatic duct, resulting in pancreatic injury

Acute pancreatitis usually begins with gradual or sudden pain in the upper abdomen that sometimes extends to the back. The pain may be mild at first and become worse after eating. The pain is often severe, constant, and commonly lasts for several days in the absence of treatment. A person with acute pancreatitis usually looks and feels very ill and needs immediate medical attention.  Other symptoms can include:

  • Swollen and tender abdomen
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fever
  • Rapid pulse

Nutrition plays a very important role for patients suffering from pancreatitis.

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