Pancreatitis is simply defined as inflammation of the pancreas. The pancreas is a large gland in the abdomen, located behind the stomach, that secretes digestive enzymes into the small intestine. Besides secreting enzymes for digesting carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, the pancreas also releases insulin and glucagon into the bloodstream.
Pancreatits can occur both acutely and chronically. Though rare, this condition can be severe and possibly life threatening. Acute pancreatitis occurs suddenly, statistically more in men than women, and most patients recover from an attack of acute pancreatitis. Symptoms include pain in the abdomen that may be sudden and severe or begin mildly and worsen after meals. Nausea and vomiting are often symptoms, and swelling or tenderness of the abdomen may also be present.
Gallstones and excessive consumption of alcohol are common causes of acute pancreatitis; however, if those causes are ruled out, a doctor will need to perform further tests to determine the cause. Chronic pancreatitis is a persistent condition, often caused by long-term excessive drinking. Chronic pancreatitis results in the slow destruction of the pancreas and in time effects other vital organs, such as the kidneys, liver, lungs, and heart, as excreted toxins from the diseased pancreas pass through the body. In severe cases, bleeding can also occur.
This condition can be diagnosed with a simple blood test, although sometimes an abdominal ultrasound or CAT scan may also be ordered to check for gallstones that may be blocking the pancreatic duct or other complications. Short-term hospitalization is common with acute pancreatitis, and surgery may be required if gallstones or cysts are present and will interfere with the healing of the pancreas. Because the pancreas plays a role in digestion, many people who suffer an acute attack cannot eat for a few days. Fluids, along with antibiotics if necessary, are given intravenously, followed by a bland liquid diet as the pancreas heals. In severe cases, a feeding tube may be required for one to three weeks.