Pancreatitis: What You Should Know

The pancreas is a gland that sits behind the stomach, close to the duodenum-the first part of the small intestine. The pancreas plays a key role in your digestive system by secreting digestive juices, also called enzymes, into the duodenum through the pancreatic duct. Pancreatic juices join with bile-a liquid produced in the liver and stored in the gallbladder-to divide the fats, proteins and carbohydrates you eat into digestible molecules. The pancreas also produces the hormones insulin and glucagon, which help the body regulate the glucose (sugar) it takes from food to provide you with energy.

Usually the digestive process is seamless but when the pancreas becomes inflamed, its digestive enzymes attack the tissue that produces them, causing swelling in the tissue cells and blood vessels resulting in pancreatitis. The condition affects more men than women. There are two forms of pancreatitis: acute and chronic.

Pancreatitis begins as a sudden (acute) attack that is usually resolved within a few days with treatment. However, the condition can become life threatening if complications such as heart, lung or kidney failure occurs. In rare instances, pancreatitis may lead to the development of pancreatic cancer.

Although the problem is not well understood, pancreatitis is most often caused by gallstones, which may become stuck in the bile duct, allowing pancreatic enzymes to build up in the pancreas, ultimately damaging it.  The chronic, heavy use of alcohol is also a common culprit. Some other causes of acute pancreatitis include:

  • Abdominal trauma
  • Medications
  • Infections, such as mumps
  • Tumors
  • Heredity

Acute pancreatitis usually begins with a sudden or gradual pain in the upper abdomen and may extend through the back. The pain may be mild at first and then get worse after eating and may be constant and last for several days. Other symptoms of pancreatitis include:

  • A swollen and tender abdomen
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fever
  • A rapid pulse

Chronic pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas that does heal and gets worse over time, leading to permanent damage. The most common cause of chronic pancreatitis is many years of heavy alcohol use. In addition to the above symptoms for acute pancreatitis, symptoms for chronic pancreatitis include:

  • Weight loss
  • Diarrhea
  • Oily stools

Treatment for pancreatitis may include removal of your gallstones; a low-fat diet and enzyme supplements to help with digestion; avoiding alcohol and surgery to treat complications.