The pancreas lies in the back of the upper abdomen, just above the spine. The pancreas is a gland that secretes digestive enzymes and sodium bicarbonate directly into the intestinal tract. Islands of cells in the pancreas produce the hormones insulin and glucagon. These hormones are critical for the metabolism of carbohydrates and fats. Inflammation of the pancreas can occur from many causes. It can occur acutely or develop into a chronic and recurrent disorder. The acute form is thought to lead to activation of pancreatic enzymes within the pancreas. This leads to autodigestion, or damage and destruction of the pancreas by its own enzymes. In chronic pancreatitis, the gland gradually becomes less able to secrete digestive enzymes and sometimes insulin. This leads to problems with digestion and occasionally diabetes.
Causes of Pancreatitis
The most common causes leading to acute and chronic pancreatitis include alcoholism and disease of the gallbladder or bile ducts. Obstruction of the pancreatic duct by stones, scarring or slow-growing cancer (rare) can also produce chronic pancreatitis. Repeated episodes of acute pancreatitis can also permanently damage the gland. Abdominal injuries, particularly those that cause the pancreas to be injured against the adjacent spine, can lead to acute pancreatitis. Some viral infections, medications and elevated fat levels are also causes of pancreatitis.
Signs and Symptoms of Pancreatitis
Acute pancreatitis produces severe upper abdominal pain. The pain may radiate into the back or into the chest. Frequently, the signs and symptoms of acute pancreatitis occur 12-24 hours after a heavy meal or after excessive alcohol consumption. Nausea and vomiting occur. There is abdominal swelling. Bruising over the abdomen or back may occur. Mild fever may occur. There may be a history of alcohol abuse or a history of gallstones. Chronic pancreatitis usually occurs in the setting of periodic attacks of acute pancreatitis in the past. Frequently, there is a history of heavy alcohol use or gallstones. Chronic pancreatitis interferes with the ability of the pancreas to secrete enzymes that aid in digestion. There is usually some upper abdominal pain, similar to acute pancreatitis. The pain may be worse after meals and may last for days or weeks. Rarely, does the pain of chronic pancreatitis persist for less than one day. Jaundice - yellowing of the skin and eyes may occur. There is weight loss. the stools contain substantial fat and float or have foul smell.
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Medical Content Last Updated on 07/12/2008
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