Pancreatitis is an infection in the pancreas which causes it to become inflamed (itis = inflamed). The pancreas is located in the upper abdomen. It is long, thin, and rests just behind the stomach. The pancreas's primary function is to produce insulin, a hormone necessary to process sugar - glucose - in the digestive system. It is also produces other enzymes and hormones used in the breakdown of glucose.
Forms of Pancreatitis
- Acute Pancreatitis:
- - This form of pancreatitis comes on quickly and the pancreas may remain inflamed for a few days. Acute pancreatitis can go away on its own. Even if it requires medical treatment it is usually not considered serious.
- Chronic Pancreatitis:
- - This form of pancreatitis develops over many years and is very serious. Damaged and/or scarred tissue can eventually shut down the pancreas causing digestion problems and/or diabetes.
What Causes Pancreatitis?
As mentioned above, one of the functions of the pancreas is to produce digestive enzymes. Normally, these enzymes remain inactive while they are produced and stored inside the pancreas. When needed, the enzymes travel through a series of ducts and become activated in the small intestine where they are used in the digestive process.
Infection, injury, and other triggers can cause the enzymes to activate while they are still inside the pancreas. They begin to digest the pancreatic tissue, causing inflammation and irritation. If the condition is chronic, it can cause permanent damage to the pancreas.
Specific triggers of pancreatitis include:
- A genetic predisposition
- Smoking tobacco products
- Certain medications
- Abdominal surgery
- High levels of calcium, triglycerides, or parathyroid hormone in the blood
- Cystic Fibrosis
Complications Caused By Pancreatitis
There are multiple complications that can stem from a compromised pancreas. Some of these include:
- Respiratory Problems
- - Chemical imbalances caused by pancreatitis can alter lung function and deplete the body's oxygen supply.
- - Once the pancreas becomes inflamed, it's susceptible to bacterial and viral infections. These infections are often serious, requiring hospitalization and surgery to remove infected tissue.
- - If the pancreas is compromised to the point that it can no longer produce insulin, a patient will develop diabetes.
- - The body is dependent on key digestive enzymes to break down food to be absorbed as nutrients. If these enzymes are not being produced, food can't be properly digested and malnourishment is the result.
- Kidney Failure
- - If kidney function becomes compromised, the patient may require dialysis to process toxins.
- Pancreatic Cancer
- - Research has shown a link between chronic inflammation of the pancreas and the emergence of pancreatic cancer.
- - As fluid and debris accumulate in a compromised pancreas, cyst-like pockets can form. If they rupture, they can cause internal bleeding and infection.
Symptoms of pancreatitis include:
- Pain in the upper abdominal region
- Upper abdominal pain that wraps around to the back
- Pain in the upper abdomen after eating
- Tenderness when the abdomen is touched
Chronic Pancreatitis (includes the above symptoms, as well as):
- Smelly oily stool
- Unexplained weight loss
- Chronic indigestion
Treatment for Pancreatitis
The first step in treatment is to stabilize the pancreas. This usually means a hospital stay and includes fasting, treatment of potential infection, pain medication, rest, and IV fluids to prevent dehydration.
Depending on the cause of pancreatitis, treatments may also include surgery to remove any underlying issues such as damaged tissue, blocked bile ducts, or gall stones. If the underlying cause is alcoholism, the treatment will take that into consideration as well.
Chronic pancreatitis treatment may also include long term pain management,IV nutrient and/or enzyme therapies to aid in the body's digestion and to prevent malnourishment, and changes to diet and lifestyle.
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