The pancreas is a large organ that lies in the upper abdominal cavity. It is an important constituent of the digestive and endocrine systems in the body. The most important hormones secreted by the pancreas are insulin and glucagon. These hormones play a critical role in maintaining the proper blood glucose level. Insulin is required by the majority of cells in the body in order to take up glucose from the bloodstream.
Lack of sufficient insulin in the blood results in increased blood glucose level since the cells in the body fail to take up glucose from the bloodstream. This results in diabetes (type 1 diabetes). Diabetes can also occur if the cells of the body become unresponsive to insulin. Such a condition is known as type 2 diabetes. Apart from the hormones, the pancreas also produces digestive enzymes.
Pancreatic enzymes are required for the digestion of proteins and fats. These powerful enzymes are stored in the pancreas until the time of digestion. Since these enzymes can digest tissue proteins, they are stored in the pancreas as inactive precursors. This prevents them from digesting the pancreatic tissue.
Pancreatitis refers to an inflammation of the pancreatic tissue. The main cause of pancreatitis is premature activation of the digestive enzymes that are stored within the pancreas. Once activated, the pancreatic enzymes begin to digest the pancreatic tissue. This results in inflammation within the pancreas. Pancreatitis is a serious condition. Acute pancreatitis can be lethal, whereas chronic pancreatitis is a risk factor for pancreatic cancer.
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Although pancreatitis can affect any individual around the globe, its incidence is the highest in the US and Finland. Around 200,000 patients with pancreatitis get admitted to the hospital annually within the US alone. The high incidence of pancreatitis in the US has been linked to higher alcohol consumption. Approximately 10-15% of patients with acute pancreatitis do not survive the condition.
How To Spot Pancreatitis
Pancreatitis in the US has commonly been associated with excessive alcohol consumption. However, other factors may also contribute to the development of pancreatitis. For example, people with gallstones are also at a higher risk of developing pancreatitis. The following are some of the signs and symptoms that may occur in acute pancreatitis.
Upper abdominal pain
Severe pain in the upper abdominal region is one of the main symptoms of acute pancreatitis. The abdominal pain may not be severe in some cases of chronic pancreatitis. The pain in pancreatitis is typically felt in the epigastric region. However, the pain may also be felt slightly to the left or right of the epigastric region. The exact area of the pain depends on the part of the pancreas that is affected.
The nature of pain differs in cases of acute and chronic pancreatitis. The pain may occur intermittently in case of chronic pancreatitis. Episodes of abdominal pain may last for hours. In acute pancreatitis, the pain starts suddenly and worsens gradually. Abdominal pain in acute pancreatitis may last for more than a day, and is frequently described as a dull ache.
The pain may also radiate to the back region. Leaning forward or sitting up may provide temporary relief from the pain. Radiating pain may also occur in some cases of chronic pancreatitis. The pain in such cases may radiate around the back and the abdomen.
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Tender and enlarged abdomen
Acute pancreatitis is also characterized by abdominal distension or enlargement. Abdominal distention is also frequently accompanied by tenderness in the abdominal area. Pressing the abdominal area around the pancreas causes pain. Application of pressure to the abdominal area also results in contraction of the abdominal muscles (a phenomenon known as guarding). Bowel sounds may also get diminished. Chronic pancreatitis may not present with these symptoms.
Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea
Feeding aggravates the abdominal pain in pancreatitis. Nausea and vomiting are also frequently present, along with loss of appetite. The feeling of nausea is usually persistent. Vomiting may occur episodically over a long period of time. In some cases, the vomit may also contain blood. This condition is medically known as hematemesis. Acute pancreatitis may also be accompanied by diarrhea in some cases. The stool in such cases may be foul-smelling and greasy in appearance.
Unexpected weight loss
Chronic pancreatitis may result in unexpected and gradual weight loss. Loss of appetite and digestive problems that occur in chronic pancreatitis may contribute to the weight loss over a period of many months and years. Since eating causes abdominal pain, patients with pancreatitis tend to eat less. Also, deficiency of digestive enzymes from the pancreas impairs digestion and absorption of food in the gut. Unexpected weight loss should always be taken seriously since it can be a sign of cancer. Chronic pancreatitis increases the risk of pancreatic cancer.
Steatorrhea refers to fatty or greasy stools. Pancreatitis results in insufficient supply of the lipase enzyme, which is required for the digestion of fats in the gut. This causes retention of undigested fats in the stool, leading to steatorrhea. Fatty stools are more common in cases of chronic pancreatitis. In addition to an oily appearance, the fatty stools in pancreatitis may also have a foul odor.
Other signs and symptoms
Other signs and symptoms of pancreatitis include low blood pressure (medically known as hypotension), rapid heart rate (medically known as tachycardia), presence of degraded blood in the stool (medically known as melena), shortness of breath (medically known as dyspnea), excessive sweating, jaundice, and listlessness. These signs and symptoms are not present in all cases of pancreatitis. Some of these may be present in acute pancreatitis, whereas others may occur in cases of chronic pancreatitis.
The presence of the above mentioned signs and symptoms should alert one to the possibility of pancreatitis, especially when seen in people who are either alcoholics or have abdominal injury or gallstones.
Will pancreatitis kill you?
Pancreatitis is a potentially lethal condition. Acute pancreatitis should always be treated as a medical emergency. Around 10% of the patients with acute pancreatitis die due to the disease. Type 2 diabetics have a higher risk of developing severe pancreatitis that could turn fatal. Chances of survival improve significantly with early diagnosis and treatment of acute pancreatitis.
The survival rate in chronic pancreatitis is about 45% at 25 years and about 70% at 10 years. Cirrhosis, alcoholism, age, and tobacco smoking worsen the prognosis. Patients of chronic pancreatitis also have a relatively higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Always consult witha doctor if the above signs and symptoms are present, especially if it is associated with excessive alcohol consumption.