Unless you have had a problem with your pancreas, you probably haven’t given it much thought. However, this little organ plays a big role in your digestive health. When the pancreas becomes inflamed, it causes severe abdominal pain and other complications if not treated properly. Here, we’ll take a closer look at what the pancreas does, what happens during pancreatitis and what you need to know about this condition.
The pancreas is an abdominal organ located behind your stomach and provides two critical functions for your body:
- It makes and releases digestive enzymes to break down food in your digestive tract
- It regulates your blood sugar by releasing insulin and other hormones.
Your Pancreas Plays a Big Role in Digestion.
During digestion, your pancreas makes enzymes that break down sugars, fats, and starches. Your pancreas also helps your digestive system by making hormones, the chemical messengers that help regulate your blood sugar levels and appetite, stimulate stomach acids, and tell your stomach when to empty.
What Happens During Pancreatitis?
Your pancreas makes enzymes to aid in digesting your food. In order to protect your pancreas from these enzymes, they are created and released in an inactive, harmless form. They travel from the pancreas to the small intestine, where they are activated and digest your meals. Pancreatitis happens when those pancreatic enzymes become active while still in the pancreas. Rather than breaking down food, these enzymes break down or digest the pancreas, leading to inflammation and organ damage.
Pancreatitis can either be acute or chronic. Acute pancreatitis occurs suddenly. Patients with acute pancreatitis typically present with severe abdominal pain and usually require emergency medical treatment. Some people who have had one attack of acute pancreatitis can go on to have several more attacks. Recurrent attacks of acute pancreatitis can lead to chronic pancreatitis.
Chronic pancreatitis is a long-lasting condition where the health of the pancreas worsens over time. Patients with chronic pancreatitis may have chronic pain, trouble digesting their food, and can develop diabetes. It is diagnosed by specific changes to the pancreas on imaging studies.
What are the Symptoms of Pancreatitis?
Symptoms of pancreatitis vary based on whether the condition is acute or chronic, and can vary widely between individuals.
Symptoms of Acute Pancreatitis
People with acute pancreatitis usually experience episodes of:
- Sudden severe upper abdominal pain that may radiate to your back and/or feel worse after eating
- Nausea, vomiting
- Abdominal tenderness
Symptoms of Chronic Pancreatitis
People with chronic pancreatitis usually experience:
- Upper abdominal pain, which may be constant or episodic
- Unintentional weight loss
- Oily, smelly stools that may or may not be diarrhea
What are the Complications of Pancreatitis?
As with symptoms of pancreatitis, complications and outcomes of pancreatitis vary widely between patients. Acute pancreatitis may be complicated by infection, kidney failure, and fluid-filled sacs in the pancreas (psuedocysts) that may that may rupture, among other complications.
Chronic pancreatitis can lead to:
- Type 3c Diabetes Mellitus. Damage to the pancreas may reduce the production of insulin and other hormones that regulate blood sugar.
- Malnutrition and pancreatic exocrine insufficiency. Damage to the pancreas may reduce the number of enzymes being produced and released. This can be treated with oral pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy.
- Pancreatic Cancer. Sustained, long-term pancreatic inflammation leads to an increased risk of pancreatic cancer.
What Are The Causes and Risk Factors For Pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis is a complex disease with many possible underlying causes and risk factors.
Factors that may increase your risk include:
- Being male
- Being African American
- Having a family history of pancreatitis
- Having a personal or family history of gallstones
- Heavy alcohol use
Causes of pancreatitis include:
- High triglycerides
- Genetic disorders of the pancreas
- Cystic fibrosis
- Traumatic injury to the pancreas
- Certain medications
- Heavy alcohol use
- Pancreatic cancer
If you have any questions or suspect you may have symptoms of pancreatitis, consult with your doctor or healthcare provider. If you are experiencing severe, sudden onset abdominal pain, seek emergency medical assistance.