The Pancreas


What is Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis refers to inflammation in the pancreas. Situated in the upper abdomen and covered by the stomach, the pancreas is a long gland that is flat in shape. It is responsible for the production of enzymes for digestion and hormones for the regulation of sugar processing.

Acute pancreatitis appears suddenly and lasts for a few days, while chronic pancreatitis is experienced over several years. Milder cases of pancreatitis can subside without requiring treatment, while more severe cases can cause complications that could be life-threatening.

A woman holding her abdomen in pain

What causes pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis occurs due to the activation of digestive enzymes while they are still in the pancreas. This irritates the cells of the pancreas, which leads to inflammation. When acute pancreatitis is suffered on multiple occasions, it can damage the pancreas and develop into chronic pancreatitis. It may also cause the formation of scar tissue and loss of function, which can, in turn, lead to digestion issues and diabetes.

Among the conditions which can cause pancreatitis are gallstones, cystic fibrosis, abdominal surgery, pancreatic cancer, obesity, alcoholism, and certain medications.

Several risk factors for pancreatitis are understood, including; being a smoker, drinking alcohol excessively, being obese, and having a family history of pancreatitis.

Symptoms of pancreatitis

Symptoms of acute pancreatitis can vary from person to person. Among the most common symptoms of acute pancreatitis are; abdominal pain that is worse after eating a meal, abdominal pain that radiates to the back, pain in the upper abdomen, tenderness in the abdomen, a rapid pulse, fever, vomiting and nausea.

Symptoms of chronic pancreatitis can include pain in the upper abdomen, unexplained weight loss, and smelly and oily stools.

If you are experiencing abdominal pain which does not improve or go away, you should see your doctor. If your pain is so severe that you cannot find a comfortable position or sit still, you should seek medical help immediately.

Treatment of Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis is usually diagnosed using tests such as; blood tests, a CT scan to assess inflammation and look for gallstones, stool tests, abdominal ultrasound and endoscopic ultrasound to look for blockages in the bile duct or pancreatic duct.

Initial hospital treatments for acute pancreatitis include; fasting for up to two days in order to allow the pancreas time to recover; pain medications to control the severe discomfort pancreatitis causes; and intravenous (IV) fluids, to hydrate you as your body commits more fluids and energy to repair the pancreas.

Once your initial symptoms are under control, there are a number of possible procedures that can be recommended. These include:

  • The widening and opening of the bile duct, in order to remove a bile duct obstruction.
  • Gallbladder surgery, for cases in which gallstones have caused pancreatitis and need removing.
  • Pancreas surgery, to drain fluid from the pancreas and remove diseased tissue.
  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), which uses a tiny camera to examine the pancreas and bile ducts, sending footage to a monitor. This procedure can be useful in diagnosing problems and making repairs.
  • Alcohol dependence treatment.