This article will provide an overview of pancreatitis. Let‘s first discuss what the pancreas is. It is a long, large gland located in the rear part of the stomach and beside the small intestines.
The pancreas has different functions, mainly:
- The Exocrine Function: the pancreas has what we call the ‘exocrine’ glands that are in charge of releasing powerful enzymes that pushes through the small intestines and help digest food; and
- The Endocrine Function: the pancreas has a section which holds the endocrine. This component contains cells that can produce important hormones into the bloodstream. These hormones keep our blood sugar levels normal.
In essence, the pancreas plays a very important role in our system.
Pancreatitis refers to the condition wherein an inflammation occurs inside the pancreas.
Pancreatic damage takes place when enzymes activate before they get released and pushed into the small intestines. Such occurrence allows the enzymes to attack the pancreas and lead to damage.
What are the different types?
Pancreatitis can be classified into two types: acute and chronic.
Acute pancreatitis refers to the sudden inflammation of the pancreas that is short-term and can last for only a few days. This condition may cause a mild to severe discomfort.
Mild acute pancreatitis commonly goes away without having to go through any kind of treatment, with some cases requiring minor treatments.
Severe acute pancreatitis, however, may develop into fatal, life-threatening conditions. Examples of such conditions are severe tissue damage, bleeding, cyst formation, infections, etc. These can also spread out and affect other organs.
Chronic pancreatitis, on the other hand, is a long-term inflammation of the pancreas. This condition typically results from experiencing multiple episodes of acute pancreatitis and can last up to years.
Another cause of chronic pancreatitis is drinking too much alcohol and often.
People who have acquired pancreatitis from heavy drinking may not suffer long-term pancreatitis but is susceptible to developing a more severe pancreatitis condition.
What causes it?
Records have shown that acute pancreatitis is mostly caused by heavy alcohol intake or gallstones.
There are also other recorded causes of this condition, including infections, metabolic disorders, autoimmune diseases, medications, and even trauma.
In some cases, some people get acute pancreatitis without any visible causes.
Amongst all the patients diagnosed with this condition, 15% have unknown causes.
On a different note, 70% of the people who have chronic pancreatitis developed their conditions from heavy alcohol drinking while in about 20-30% of the time, the cause is unknown.
Anyone can have pancreatitis, but people with risk factors are more susceptible to getting it.
The following are just a few risk factors for acute pancreatitis:
- Heavy alcohol intake
Acute pancreatitis can be an indicator of gallstones. Gallstones are capable of blocking bile ducts, which can cause abdominal pain and lead to acute pancreatitis.
The following are just a few risk factors for chronic pancreatitis:
- Frequent heavy alcohol intake
- Hereditary factors
People diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis are mostly men between the ages of 30 and 40, but this doesn’t mean that women are immune to chronic pancreatitis.
What are its symptoms?
Acute pancreatitis symptoms include the following:
- Rapid heartbeat
- Nausea and vomiting
- Swollen/tender abdomen
- Abdominal pain that can also be felt in the back
Chronic pancreatitis symptoms, on the other hand, are discussed below: The symptoms of chronic pancreatitis are almost identical to the symptoms of acute pancreatitis.
Most patients feel recurring pain in the upper part of their abdomen that also throbs into the back. In some cases, the pain is too much and can even disable movement.
Other symptoms also include weight loss and diarrhea.
How is it prevented?
Since the majority of the patients who have pancreatitis developed their conditions from drinking too much alcohol, the best and most effective prevention is to limit alcohol intake or completely quit drinking alcohol.
If you’re a heavy drinker and find it extremely difficult to withdraw, talk to a health professional and ask for a referral to a center that offers counseling and behavioral therapies.
How is it diagnosed?
Doctors conduct different tests and procedures to diagnose pancreatitis, including:
- Blood tests: to gauge the levels of enzymes that the pancreas releases
- Stool tests: to gauge the levels of fat that can indicate whether or not your digestive system has adequate nutrients
- CT scan: to check if the pancreas is inflamed and if there are gallstones inside
- MRI: to check if there is anything abnormal in the pancreas and gallbladder
- ERCP to look for abnormalities in the ducts by means of X-ray
- Biopsy: a small tissue is removed from the pancreas to be sampled for a study
- Pancreatic function test: to see if the pancreas is producing enzymes adequately
- Glucose tolerance test: to check if there is cell damage in the pancreas
How is it treated?
For people with acute pancreatitis, intravenous fluids (IV fluids) will be given to help hydrate and replace lost fluids.
Pain medications may also be given until the inflammation heals. For severe cases of acute pancreatitis, patients will be asked to stay in the ICU or intensive care unit.
The patient will be carefully scrutinized by doctors and nurses as severe pancreatitis can damage other organs like the heart, kidneys, lungs, etc.
Further development of severe pancreatitis can kill pancreatic tissues. In such cases, surgery will be required should the dead tissues develop into an infection.
As previously mentioned, acute pancreatitis usually lasts for a few days. However, acute pancreatitis caused by gallstones may need surgery to remove the stones.
Once the gallstones are removed and the inflammation subsides, the pancreas will recover little by little until it returns back to normal.
Chronic pancreatitis is much more difficult to treat as it involves lifestyle changes. Doctors will give the patient pain medicines to relieve the pain and enzyme pills to give the pancreas a rest.
The doctors will also prohibit patients from drinking alcohol and are encouraged to stick to a low-fat diet. For severe cases, surgery may be conducted.
This will help relieve pain in the abdominal area, restore pancreatic enzymes, decrease the chances of pancreatic attacks, etc.
In order to fully treat and prevent pancreatitis, patients must avoid drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes at all costs.
Patients must also follow the advice of their dietician and take proper medications. If you are suffering from or have reason to believe that you have pancreatitis, do not hesitate to seek medical attention right away.
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