Pancreatitis – What is it?

 Pancreatitis – What is it?

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 Pancreatitis – What is it?

Pancreatitis is a condition in which your pancreas is inflamed. An effective pancreas is essential for your body’s ability to digest fats, carbohydrates, and proteins from our food. It is also a key organ in controlling blood sugar.

The pancreas is found behind the stomach and duodenum (the start of the small intestine). Its job is to secrete several enzymes through a tube called the pancreatic duct and into the small intestine. These enzymes trigger the reaction in our bodies that enable us to digest and absorb carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. The pancreas also produces insulin and glucagon – the essential ingredient our body needs to break down the sugar we eat that otherwise remains in our blood.

In a healthy person, the enzymes lie dormant (or inactive) in the pancreas and pancreatic duct and only trigger a reaction when they reach the duodenum. However, sometimes these enzymes start their reaction inside the pancreas. When this occurs, the pancreas literally is eaten from the inside out. The pancreas becomes inflamed and can break down completely.

Pancreatitis can occur in two forms – acute or chronic. Acute pancreatitis comes on suddenly, is often caused by something else, and will be cured and not reoccur once the originating cause is removed. Chronic pancreatitis is a disease on its own, that comes on slowly, causes repeated attacks, and can lead to the complete destruction of the pancreas and all its functions.

About 2 in 100,000 people suffer from acute pancreatitis per year in the UK. The most common causes are gallstones or alcoholism, accounting for 8 out of 10 cases. A gallstone can get stuck at the mouth of the pancreatic duct and stop the enzymes from passing into the duodenum. How alcohol triggers the reaction is unclear. Less common causes can be a virus, a reaction to surgery, or a hereditary prevalence. In most cases, the symptoms of abdominal pain and vomiting are severe for a few days and then disappear after a week or immediately once the stone is dispersed or moved.

Chronic pancreatitis is half as common as the acute variety with 1 in 100,000 people suffering in the UK every year. Alcoholism is the most common cause; with most sufferers being men aged 40-50 with a history of heavy alcohol consumption for more than 10 years. The initial incident may be similar to an acute episode but the symptoms will reoccur. The persistent inflammation will cause scarring and permanent damage; the enzyme production will eventually stop causing diabetes (inability to control blood sugar), and malabsorption (inability to absorb protein, carbohydrates, and fat) and will cause calcium deposits that block the pancreas completely.

There is no clear diagnostic test for either condition, but symptoms followed by blood tests to check sugar and fat levels can strongly suggest their presence. Treatment is usually through painkillers, rest, a restricted diet, and the removal of any stones. Patients with either condition are encouraged to refrain from smoking or alcohol. For chronic sufferers, insulin and enzymes may need to be given to help the body.