Take a quick guess as to which of the body’s many systems includes the pancreas. If you guessed the digestive system, you are right! The pancreas is an often-overlooked gland organ that has a key role in digesting our food and producing our body’s insulin and glucose control. The pancreas is located behind the stomach, close to the first section of the small intestine, and is about eight inches long. Its two functions are to make insulin and digestive enzymes that help break down the food we eat into smaller particles that are more easily absorbed by our small and large intestines.
How can the pancreas malfunction?
Like all organs and systems in our bodies, things can go wrong and cause issues throughout our bodies. Pancreatitis is simply inflammation of the pancreas, but the level of inflammation can cause different things to happen to our digestive systems. Acute pancreatitis occurs pretty suddenly and only lasts a short-term. Most people who develop acute pancreatitis get better within a few days or weeks. Chronic pancreatitis is a long-lasting condition which doesn’t improve, which can lead to damage of the pancreas or other bodily systems.
How do I know if I have pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis usually begins fairly slowly and with minimal symptoms, so catching it early may be difficult. People with acute pancreatitis and chronic pancreatitis may experience these symptoms in different ways:
• Pain in the upper abdomen that spreads to the back, may be mild or severe
• Fast heartbeat
• Swollen or tender abdomen
• Foul-smelling stool
• Weight loss
• Shortness of breath
There are some population groups that have a higher risk of developing pancreatitis. Men are more likely than women to develop pancreatitis, as well as African Americans. People with a family history of pancreatitis or gallstones also have a higher risk.
How is pancreatitis diagnosed and treated?
To determine if you have pancreatitis, a doctor will perform a physical examination and run various tests and bloodwork to determine if your symptoms meet the burden of proof for pancreatitis. A blood test can test for the levels of digestive enzymes made in your pancreas, your glucose levels, lipids levels (fat in your blood), signs of an infection, or pancreatic cancer. A stool test can determine whether or not your body is absorbing the fat you consume properly.
A variety of imaging tests can be ordered to determine the level of inflammation in or around the pancreas. An ultrasound can check for gallstones, while a CT scan can get clear pictures of the pancreas, gallbladder and bile ducts. Other more invasive imaging tests may be used to determine the severity of the inflammation.
Different treatments are required depending on if the pancreatitis is acute or chronic. Acute pancreatitis may require minor surgery or procedures that take place in a hospital setting. Chronic pancreatitis treatment depends on how well the pancreas works to begin with. Medications and vitamins may be prescribed to chronic pancreatitis patients to aid with digestion or replace missing vitamins that the body may not be absorbing. Chronic pancreatitis sufferers may also develop diabetes, which needs to be controlled with medication and diet. Chronic pancreatitis patients may also require more surgery to relieve pressure in the bile ducts, or remove a damaged part of the pancreas.
In most severe cases, doctors may remove the entire pancreas and use other methods to ensure that your liver is responsible for making the enzymes that your pancreas once did.
Can I prevent pancreatitis?
While there are few ways to prevent pancreatitis, there are preventative measures that you can take to ensure you remain as healthy as possible and lower any standing risk you may already have for pancreatitis.
• Limit or stop drinking alcohol. Doctors strongly advise people with pancreatitis to limit or stop drinking alcohol as it can lead to severe complications.
• Stop smoking. Smoking greatly increases the chance that pancreatitis will become chronic and increases the chance of developing pancreatic cancer.
• Maintain a healthy weight. Being at a healthy weight helps the pancreas work better and can lower your chance of getting gallstones, a leading cause of pancreatitis.
• Drink plenty of fluids and limit high-fat foods. Sticking to a low-fat, healthy diet can reduce your risk of pancreatitis.
Disclaimer: The contents of this article, including text and images, are for informational purposes only and do not constitute a medical service. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health professional for medical advice, diagnosis, and treatment.