Pancreatitis (Inflamed Pancreas)

Definition

Pancreatitis refers to the inflammation of pancreas. The pancreas is an important gland in the upper abdomen that secretes digestive juices and hormones that maintains blood sugar level. When the pancreas is diseased in any way its effects on digestion and blood sugar levels are disrupted. Pancreatitis is usually caused due to gallstones and alcohol abuse. Pancreatitis can last for a few days to weeks or months and years.

Symptoms

Pancreatitis can be acute or chronic. One of the main symptoms of acute pancreatitis is sudden onset of severe pain in the upper abdomen accompanied by nausea, vomiting and fever or heavy perspiration. Typically the pain gets worse during and after eating. Sitting up or leaning forward tends to ease the pain. Chronic pancreatitis is marked by dysfunction of pancreatic function with occasional acute episodes.

Other symptoms of pancreatitis include:

  • Swollen or tender abdomen
  • Abnormal blood sugar levels
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Low blood pressure

Symptoms of chronic pancreatitis are:

  • Permanent pancreatic damage
  • Severe indigestion
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Oily stools having a foul smell

Causes

In the normal course of digestion, the enzymes secreted by pancreas are conveyed to the small intestine through specific ducts. In the intestine the pancreatic enzymes become active and aid in digestion. During pancreatitis, the enzymes are either activated within the pancreas or are not emptied properly due to blocked ducts and they become active while still in the pancreas. Tthese active enzymes cause irritation to the pancreatic cells, leading to inflammation and other symptoms of pancreatitis. Symptoms are detected only at the onset of acute pancreatitis, when the signs become intense.

Some common causes of acute pancreatitis are:

  • Formation of gallstones
  • Heavy alcohol consumption
  • Medications or abdominal surgery
  • Infections or trauma
  • Metabolic disorders or other genetic defects

Repeated episodes may lead to permanent functional damage the pancreas, usually termed as chronic pancreatitis. As the disease progresses, the absorption of fat and protein becomes severely impaired. Undigested fat is released in the stool. Occasionally, severe lack of insulin cause diabetic states. Prominent causes of chronic pancreatitis include:

  • Prolonged alcohol consumption
  • High triglycerides level or gallstone disease
  • Genetic disorders of the pancreas
  • Having a family history of pancreatitis, gallstone diseases or pancreatic tumor makes an individual more likely to develop this condition.

When left unattended it may lead to severe complications including:

  • Respiratory problems
  • Kidney failure
  • Pancreatic cancer

Treatment

The treatment of pancreatitis primarily aims at reducing the inflammation of the gland and controlling the associated discomfort. Hospitalization is necessary in even mild cases of pancreatitis. Initial treatment strategies include:

  • Stopping food intake for a few days reduces load on pancreas and helps it recover faster. Intravenous fluids or a feeding tube prove beneficial in maintaining nutrition. Eventually a fluid diet can be commenced.
  • Pain-relieving medications

Once the patient is stabilized, the treatment is directed at :

  • Clearing pancreatic duct obstructions
  • Removing gallstones
  • Restoring normal pancreatic function with digestive enzymes or insulin

Patients with pancreatitis, whether acute or chronic, need to discontinue using alcohol altogether. Rehabilitation may be necessary.

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