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Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas, an organ located behind the stomach. The pancreas plays a crucial role in digestion by producing enzymes that help break down food, as well as producing hormones like insulin that regulate blood sugar levels. Pancreatitis occurs when the enzymes damage the pancreas and cause inflammation.

There are two types, both are serious and can cause complications:

Acute pancreatitis is a short-term condition that occurs suddenly.  It can range from mild to severe, with severe cases potentially becoming life-threatening. It typically goes away within a few days of treatment.

  • The most common causes of acute pancreatitis are gallstones and excessive alcohol consumption. Other causes may include certain medications, infections, trauma to the abdomen, high levels of triglycerides in the blood, and genetic factors.
  • Symptoms of acute pancreatitis may include severe abdominal pain in the upper abdomen that can radiate to the back. The pain may be persistent, sharp or stabbing. Additional symptoms are nausea and vomiting, fever, rapid pulse, indigestion, and a swollen and tender abdomen.
  • Treatment typically involves hospitalization, fasting to rest the pancreas, intravenous fluids, pain management, and addressing the underlying cause.
  • Repeat episodes of acute pancreatitis can lead to chronic pancreatitis. Other complications include dehydration, bleeding and infections.

Chronic pancreatitis is characterized by long-term inflammation and damage to the pancreas. It usually develops over time and can lead to permanent impairment of pancreatic function.

  • Chronic pancreatitis is often associated with long-term alcohol abuse, high levels of fat in the blood, certain genetic conditions, autoimmune diseases, and blockage of the pancreatic duct can also contribute.
  • Symptoms of chronic pancreatitis may include recurrent or persistent upper abdominal pain, pain that increases with eating, unintentional weight loss, nauseas and vomiting, diarrhea, oily or foul-smelling stools, weakness and fatigue, and malnutrition due to poor digestion and absorption of nutrients.
  • Treatment aims to relieve pain, manage complications, and support pancreatic function. This may involve lifestyle changes, pain medications, pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy, insulin therapy (if diabetes develops), and in some cases, endoscopic and surgical intervention.

Pancreatitis is diagnosed through a combination of medical history assessment, physical examination, and diagnostic tests. Diagnostic tests include:

  • Blood tests to look for inflammation markers, elevated pancreatic enzymes, and other blood tests to evaluate liver function, look for infection and assess fat in the blood.
  • Imaging studies include an abdominal ultrasound, a CT scan, an MRI, and endoscopic procedures to examine the pancreas in detail. Additional tests may be conducted to further evaluate the pancreas.

Complications can include:

  • Infection that can lead to the development of cysts and abscesses
  • Pancreatic pseudocysts that can cause abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting and can become infected or rupture with serious consequences
  • Severe pancreatitis can lead to organ failure of the lungs, heart and kidneys.
  • Pancreatic necrosis is tissue death
  • Malnutrition
  • Diabetes
  • Osteopenia and osteoporosis
  • Pancreatic cancer

These complications highlight the importance of early diagnosis, proper treatment, and management of pancreatitis.

Certain groups of people have a higher likelihood of developing pancreatitis. This includes men, African Americans, people with a family history of pancreatitis, people with a history of gallstones, people with diabetes, high triglycerides, genetic disorders of the pancreas, certain autoimmune disorders, and cystic fibrosis; and people who smoke, are obese and/or are heavy alcohol users.

It is important to note that having one or more risk factors does not guarantee the development of pancreatitis. Additionally, pancreatitis can occur in individuals without any identifiable risk factors.

If you or a loved one has severe abdominal pain, it is important to seek immediate medical attention as the condition can be serious and potentially life-threatening. Your Rockford GI doctor can evaluate the symptoms, perform diagnostic tests, and provide appropriate treatment and management. Contact Rockford Gastroenterology Associates in Rockford, Illinois to get immediate quality care.

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