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The pancreas is an essential gland that is responsible for two main functions. The first is secreting digestive juices/enzymes used to digest carbohydrates, proteins and fat, and the other is to release insulin and glucagon into the blood stream to regulate how the body stores food for energy.

Pancreatitis is a rare disease which occurs when the pancreas becomes inflamed. The pancreas is damaged as a result of the digestive enzymes attacking the gland, itself. Severe cases of pancreatitis cause gland bleeding, severe tissue damage, infection, and cyst formation.

There are two types of pancreatitis:

  • Acute Pancreatitis: This category of pancreatitis begins suddenly, but only lasts a number of days. Usually these cases are milder and go away without treatment. Every year, more than 200,000 people in the U.S. are hospitalized with acute pancreatitis, usually due to gallstones, sometimes as a result of heavy alcohol consumption. Other causes of acute pancreatitis include trauma to the abdominal area, prescription medications, infection, tumor, or genetic abnormalities. Severe acute pancreatitis may lead to dehydration and low blood pressure, and the heart, lungs or kidneys may fail. Shock and even death are possible if there is bleeding into the pancreas.
  • Chronic Pancreatitis: when pancreatitis occurs and lasts over a number of years and bleeding, infection and permanent tissue damage are possible. The condition does not heal or improve, and gets worse over time, leading to permanent damage. Most patients are between the ages of 30 and 40 (it is rare in children), and the most common cause of chronic pancreatitis is heavy alcohol use. The pancreas slowly becomes destroyed through scar tissue.

Pancreatitis Symptoms

Among the most common symptoms of pancreatitis are abdominal and back pain, nausea, and vomiting. Others may include high blood pressure because of the increased pain or low blood pressure caused by bleeding or dehydration. Jaundice may be present, as well as a fever and heightened heart rates. It is important to note that chronic pancreatitis can lead to the development of diabetes and pancreatic cancer.

It is important to contact your doctor if you believe you have pancreatitis, as it can lead to severe medical conditions and disorders. Be sure to seek medical care if you have severe abdominal pain that prevents you from being able to sit still or finding a comfortable position.

Acute Pancreatitis Symptoms

  • Upper abdominal pain that may radiate to the back and feels worse after eating
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fever
  • Rapid pulse
  • Tenderness and swelling of the abdomen

Chronic Pancreatitis Symptoms

  • Upper abdominal pain
  • Indigestion
  • Losing weight even though you are eating normally
  • Oily, smelly diarrhea coming and going (steatorrhea)
  • Development of diabetes

Pancreatitis Causes and Contributors

There are a number of causes and contributors to the development of pancreatitis, although sometimes there is no known cause. Some of them include:

  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Genetic predisposition for pancreatic disorders
  • Cystic fibrosis – the most common inherited condition causing chronic pancreatitis
  • Hypercalcemia – high levels of calcium in your blood
  • Hyerlipidemia/hypertriglyceridemia – high levels of blood fats
  • Autoimmune conditions
  • Gallstones
  • Certain medications
  • Mumps
  • Hepatitis B

Pancreatitis Diagnosis

Your doctor will perform a physical examination and take your medical history. A blood test can help with arriving at a diagnosis if the blood contains at least three times the normal amount of digestive enzyme levels formed in the pancreas. Other body chemicals, such as glucose, calcium, magnesium, sodium, bicarbonate and potassium may also change. Once a person recovers or improves, these levels usually return to their normal levels.

Diagnosis of acute pancreatitis is usually difficult, because the pancreas is deep in the body.

Apart from a blood test, your doctor may also order one or more of these tests:

  • Abdominal ultrasound: The images collected from an ultrasound, called a sonogram, appear on a video monitor. If there are gallstones, then their location will be shown.
  • CT scan: this noninvasive imaging study shows 3-D pictures of body parts, and may show gallstones or the extent of damage to the pancreas.
  • Endoscopic ultrasound: An endoscope is inserted down the numbed throat of a patient, through the stomach, and into the small intestine. This thin, flexible, lighted tube then delivers images to a screen of the pancreas and bile ducts.
  • Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP): By using MRI technology, this noninvasive test shows a cross-section of parts of the body. A dye is injected into the patient’s veins to better show the pancreas, gallbladder, and pancreatic and bile ducts.
  • Urine or stool tests.

Pancreatitis Treatment

The treatment methods of pancreatitis all depend on the initial cause. Your doctor may recommend a reduced intake of alcoholic consumption, the removal of gallstones and discontinuing certain medications. It is crucial to discuss your medical history with your physician in order to better treat your pancreatitis and its associated symptoms and side effects.

Patients with acute pancreatitis may need to be hospitalized for several days to receive IV fluids, antibiotics, pain medication, and monitoring. The person is not supposed to eat or drink to allow the pancreas to rest. If the vomiting occurs, a tube may be inserted through the nose, into the stomach, to remove excess fluid and air and relieve symptoms.

Usually acute pancreatitis resolves quickly, but in severe cases, a patient may require nasogastric feeding, to allow the pancreas to heal. Nutrients are deliver to the stomach through the long, thin tube delivered through the nose, throat, and into the stomach.

Before being released from the hospital, the patient will be given instructions to refrain from smoking, drinking alcohol, and eating high-fat foods. The cause of the pancreas’ inflammation may be clear for certain patients, but more tests may be needed to determine the root of the issue for others, after their discharge.

Other treatments may be possible for acute or chronic pancreatitis patients include:

  • Sphincterotomy: an endoscope to drain the pancreatic/bile ducts.
  • Gallstone removal: Pancreatic or bile duct stones are removed.
  • Stent placement: this keeps the pancreatic or bile ducts open by placing a piece of plastic or metal in the narrowed areas.
  • Balloon dilation: similar to an angioplasty, a small balloon is inflated into the narrowed pancreatic or bile duct to keep the ducts open.
  • Synthetic pancreatic enzymes: these enzymes are taken with every meal and are meant to help with digestion and regaining weight.

Symptoms of pancreatic can be hard to deal with. Don't go another minute without proper treatment. If you are interested in learning more about pancreatitis causes, symptoms, and treatment options available at our surgery centers in Southern California, please call West Medical at (855) 690-0565 and one of our representatives will be happy to address any of your questions, comments, or concerns.

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