Pancreatitis is a condition wherein the pancreas becomes inflamed and is restricted to perform their functions normally. The pancreas works to release digestive enzymes to the small intestine, which help in proper digestion of the food, as well as supply insulin and glucagon to the blood, which are essential hormones that control how the body processes food for energy. Therefore, if the pancreas fails to perform their normal functions, it could lead to many severe complications and health issues. Besides, pancreatitis can also cause some serious damages to the gland by activating the digestive enzymes before they are released into the small intestine.

There are mainly two types of pancreatitis – acute and chronic. Acute pancreatitis usually lasts for a very short time and might exhibit mild to severe symptoms of the condition. Generally, patients with a mild form of acute pancreatitis recover with the right treatment. However, in severe cases, the sudden inflammation of the pancreas can cause serious tissue damage, bleeding into the gland, infections, and/or cyst formation. Sometimes, the condition can also affect other organs such as the lungs, heart, and kidneys.

Chronic pancreatitis is the long-term version of the condition, which usually happens after the patient has encountered an episode of acute pancreatitis. The disease can be caused due to excessive alcohol consumption also, but the symptoms might not reveal themselves for many years. In such cases, the patient might develop severe pancreatitis symptoms all of a sudden.

Symptoms and Causes

The most common symptom of acute pancreatitis is a pain in the upper abdominal area, which radiates into the back and gets intensified when the patient consumes food that has high-fat content. Apart from that, the patient would also experience swelling and tenderness in the abdominal area, nausea, vomiting, fever, and an increased heart rate. In the case of chronic pancreatitis, these symptoms would be coupled with diarrhea and weight loss.

Medical experts say that acute pancreatitis is usually caused by gallstones and/or excessive alcohol use. In some cases though, the condition is also caused due to autoimmune disease, infections, metabolic disorders, as a reaction to some medications, trauma, and surgery. Note that the cause of acute pancreatitis can vary greatly from person to person, and the actual cause of the condition is unknown in around 15% of the cases.

When it comes to chronic pancreatitis, most of the cases are associated with long-time alcohol consumption, gallstones, hereditary disorders, high triglycerides and lupus, cystic fibrosis, and certain medicines. Here too, the cause of the condition is unknown in around 20% to 30% of the cases.

Diagnosis and Treatment

When you consult a doctor at a nearby community healthcare center to diagnose pancreatitis, he/she would first review your medical history to see if any underlying condition could be the reason of the symptoms that you are experiencing. After that, your doctor would recommend a blood test to check the level of the digestive enzymes, amylase, and lipase, in your body. If a high level of these enzymes is detected, it suggests that you could have acute pancreatitis. To confirm the findings, the doctor might recommend other tests such as:

  • Pancreatic function test – This would help the doctor to see if the pancreas is making the required amounts of digestive enzymes
  • Glucose tolerance test – This would help the doctor to check the damage to the pancreas and its cells that make insulin
  • Ultrasound and MRI – These would help the doctor to assess the extent of damage in the pancreas
  • ERCP – This would help the doctor to look at the bile ducts and pancreas using X-rays

In some cases, the doctor might also suggest a biopsy to test the pancreatic tissues. After analyzing all the reports, your doctor would prepare a treatment plan to deal with your condition in the most appropriate way.

In the case of mild acute pancreatitis, the doctor would recommend administration of IV fluids and pain medications to treat the condition. In severe cases, the patient might be admitted to an ICU to monitor the condition, as pancreatitis can cause serious damages to the lungs, heart, and/or kidneys. If the condition has already damaged the pancreatic tissue severely, the doctor might recommend surgery to remove the dead or damaged tissue to avoid further infection. Similarly, if the acute pancreatitis condition is caused by gallstones, the doctor would suggest bile duct surgery or gallbladder removal treat the disease.

Chronic pancreatitis can be a bit difficult to treat though. The doctor would recommend medications to ease the symptoms and improve nutrition and digestion problems. Usually, doctors suggest administration of pancreatic enzymes and insulin shots to chronic pancreatitis patients and recommend following a low-fat diet. In many of the cases, surgery is advised to remove pancreatic duct blockage, ease abdominal pain, control the frequency of attacks, restore the functions of the pancreas, and bring the levels of enzymes and/or hormones back to normal.

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    About the Author

    Dr. Ghassan M. Al-Jazayrly, MD

    A graduate of University of Aleppo Faculty of Medicine, Dr. Al-Jazayrly or, as he is colloquially known: Dr. AJ, is an oncologist and hematologist of a Complete Care Community Health Center (CCCHC) with more than 36 years of experience. In recent years, he’s been involved with a non profit organization known as Every Woman Counts (EWC) which provides free breast and cervical cancer screening and diagnostic services to California’s underserved populations in order to eliminate health disparities for low-income individuals.

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