Pancreatitis is a condition whereby the pancreas becomes inflamed. The pancreas is a large gland that is located behind the stomach, and its major functions are to produce digestive enzymes and to release insulin and glucagon into the blood. Pancreatitis may start suddenly and last for a few hours or days, or it may reoccur over a long period of time.
Types of Pancreatitis
There are two main types of pancreatitis. These are:
- Acute pancreatitis: This is an inflammation of the pancreas that occurs suddenly and is often short-lived. Acute pancreatitis can range from mild to severe and it can lead to bleeding, tissue damage, infection, and cyst formation.
- Chronic pancreatitis: This is a long-lasting inflammation of the pancreas and often occurs after an episode of acute pancreatitis. Overconsumption of alcohol for a long time is one of the major causes of chronic pancreatitis.
Recurrent pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas that does not improve over time. The pancreas is responsible for making enzymes that help in food digestion. It also makes hormones which control the level of sugar in the bloodstream.
Recurrent pancreatitis can lead to permanent damage and scarring of the pancreas. Cysts and calcium stones may develop in the pancreas blocking the duct that carries the digestive juices and enzymes to the stomach. The blockage lowers the levels of pancreatic hormones and enzymes making it harder for the body to regulate blood sugar and digest food.
Symptoms of Pancreatitis
Symptoms of recurrent pancreatitis tend to develop over time, and they include:
- Pain in the upper abdomen
- Nausea and vomiting
- Fatty, loose, pale stool
- Unexplained weight loss
- Shortness of breath
- Excessive fatigue and thirst
- Pancreatic fluids in the abdomen
- Internal blockage
- Changes in blood pressure
- Internal bleeding
Causes of Pancreatitis
Pancreatitis can occur as a result of certain factors including:
- Certain medication
- Injury to the pancreas during a surgical procedure
- Long-term alcohol consumption
- Metabolic disorders
- Autoimmune diseases
- Trauma to the pancreas
Complications of Pancreatitis
A pancreatitis attack, whether acute or chronic, can have possible complications which include:
- Failure of the kidneys
- Cancer of the pancreas
- Can lead to diabetes if cells that produce insulin are damaged
- Infection of the pancreas
- Malnutrition as a result of enough nutrients
- Pancreatic necrosis (when cells don’t get enough blood)
Diagnosis of Pancreatitis
If a patient presents with most of the above symptoms, the doctors may suspect pancreatitis, and a few tests are done for a definite diagnosis. This includes checking for tenderness on the abdomen by gently pressing on the target area where the pancreas is located, checking the pulse, and blood pressure in cases of acute pancreatitis.
For chronic pancreatitis, imaging tests are done to check for calcifications in the pancreas, and blood and stool samples are taken for further testing to check for the presence of excess fatty tissue, which can be a sign that the pancreas is not releasing sufficient digestive enzymes to process fat as it should.
Treatment of Pancreatitis
Treatment of pancreatitis involves making the patient as comfortable as possible, which involves administering strong pain medication and going nil-by-mouth. In severe cases, the stomach may be drained, and in an extended attack, feeding and hydration may be done intravenously.
Treatment also includes:
- Diet that is low in fat
- Gallbladder surgery (removal of the gall bladder)
- Administration of antibiotics
- Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP)
- Pancreas surgery to remove dead/scar tissue
- Pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy
- In cases where diabetes has developed as a result of chronic pancreatitis, insulin is prescribed