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What Is Pancreatitis?

The pancreas is a large gland behind the stomach and next to the small intestine. The pancreas does two main things:

  1. It releases powerful digestive enzymes into the small intestine to aid the digestion of food
  2. It releases the hormones insulin and glucagon into the bloodstream. These hormones help the body control how it uses food for energy.

Pancreatitis is a disease in which the pancreas becomes inflamed. Pancreatic damage happens when the digestive enzymes are activated before they are released into the small intestine and begin attacking the pancreas.

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There are two forms of pancreatitis: acute and chronic.

Acute pancreatitis. Acute pancreatitis is a sudden inflammation that lasts for a short time. It may range from mild discomfort to a severe, life-threatening illness. Most people with acute pancreatitis recover completely after getting the right treatment. In severe cases, acute pancreatitis can result in bleeding into the gland, serious tissue damage, infection, and cyst formation. Severe pancreatitis can also harm other vital organs such as the heart, lungs, and kidneys.

Chronic pancreatitis. Chronic pancreatitis is long-lasting inflammation of the pancreas. It most often happens after an episode of acute pancreatitis. Heavy alcohol drinking is another big cause. Damage to the pancreas from heavy alcohol use may not cause symptoms for many years, but then the person may suddenly develop severe pancreatitis symptoms.

What Are the Symptoms of Pancreatitis?

Symptoms of acute pancreatitis:

  • Upper abdominal pain that radiates into the back. It may be aggravated by eating, especially foods high in fat.
  • Swollen and tender abdomen
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fever
  • Increased heart rate

Symptoms of chronic pancreatitis:

The symptoms of chronic pancreatitis are similar to those of acute pancreatitis. Patients frequently feel constant pain in the upper abdomen that radiates to the back. In some patients, the pain may be disabling. Other symptoms are weight loss caused by poor absorption (malabsorption) of food. This malabsorption happens because the gland is not releasing enough enzymes to break down food. Also, diabetes may develop if the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas are damaged.

What Causes Pancreatitis?

In most cases, acute pancreatitis is caused by gallstones or heavy alcohol use. Other causes include medications, infections, trauma, metabolic disorders, and surgery. In up to 30% of people with acute pancreatitis, the cause is unknown.

In about 45% of people, chronic pancreatitis is caused by long-time alcohol use. Other causes include gallstones, hereditary disorders of the pancreas, cystic fibrosis, high triglycerides, and certain medicines. In about 25% of cases, the cause of chronic pancreatitis is unknown. 

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