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What Causes a Swollen Pancreas?

A swollen pancreas is commonly caused by gallstones, which could force a patient to have their gallbladder removed.
Problems with the pancreas can be diagnosed with an ultrasound.
Alcohol abuse may cause a swollen pancreas.
A pancreas that is not performing correctly may cause bloating and watery stools.
Article Details
  • Written By: M.C. Huguelet
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 18 November 2014
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The primary function of the pancreas is the production of hormones which regulate the blood sugar as well as enzymes which, once released, assist in digestion. Sometimes, however, these enzymes become active prior to their release, and they attack the pancreatic tissue, causing it to become inflamed and irritated. A swollen pancreas, also known as pancreatitis, is most often caused by gallstones or alcohol abuse, but may also result from infection, pancreatic injury, diseases such as cancer and cystic fibrosis, and duct blockages. Treatment for a swollen pancreas usually includes relieving immediate symptoms and then addressing the condition’s underlying cause.

A swollen pancreas is caused by the malfunction of the digestive enzymes produced within the organ. Normally, these enzymes do not become active until they have been released from the pancreas. In pancreatitis, however, the enzymes become active before leaving the pancreas, and begin attacking the organ, causing it to become swollen. Usually, the dominant symptom of a swollen pancreas is abdominal pain. As pancreatitis involves an interruption of the digestive enzymes’ normal function, sufferers may also experience digestive problems such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, discolored waste, and unplanned weight loss.

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Normally, an underlying condition causes these pancreatic enzymes to malfunction. The two most common underlying causes of a swollen pancreas are gallstones and alcohol abuse. Generally, pancreatitis caused by gallstones arises suddenly, and is thus classified as acute pancreatitis. Conversely, pancreatic swelling caused by alcohol abuse tends to escalate over a long period of time, and is thus known as chronic pancreatitis.

Other underlying conditions can also cause a swollen pancreas. Normal function of the pancreatic enzymes may be affected by infections or by an injury to the pancreas caused by an accident or a surgical error. Diseases such as cancer and cystic fibrosis can also cause pancreatitis, as can structural deformities of the ducts which normally transport digestive enzymes away from the pancreas.

Treatment for a swollen pancreas usually includes relieving immediate symptoms and then addressing the condition’s underlying cause. Relieving the immediate symptoms of pancreatitis often involves a hospital stay during which the patient is fed intravenously, thus relieving digestive discomfort while allowing the pancreas to recover. Then, the underlying cause of pancreatitis is addressed to prevent further incidences of swelling. For instance, if the condition is caused by alcoholism, the sufferer may enter substance abuse treatment. If it is caused by gallstones, the sufferer may have his gallbladder removed.

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Discuss this Article

anon226738
Post 5

i just left my husband at the hospital and to find out he has a swollen pancreas.

When they first came told us that it was probably just gas or acid reflux, he drank that "pink lady" they give you but that only made it worse, so now I'm trying to learn bout it now.

It's sad that we have to wait until a disease or sickness affects one of our own before we take any interest. Just my thoughts about the sickness, and I needed to vent because I'm so scared and worried about him.

lighth0se33
Post 4

@shell4life - No, her pancreas wasn't enlarged. I think that was part of the mystery. They couldn't find any duct blockages either.

She did eat some fatty foods, but I don't think she ate enough of them to bring on her condition. We may never know what happened to agitate her pancreas, but as long as it doesn't happen again, that will be okay with me.

shell4life
Post 3

@lighth0se33 - That is sad about the doctors thinking your mom was an alcoholic and a liar! They really don’t like medical mysteries, because they undermine their profession.

Did your mom have an enlarged pancreas? My mom had acute pancreatitis, and hers was enlarged. She had upper abdominal pain that seemed to go through to her back. It increased when she ate.

Her doctor said that her diet was likely to blame. She ate many foods high in fat, like several donuts every day and the fatty part of meat. She had a high metabolism, so she could eat like that and not gain weight, but it caught up with her in another way. She had to alter her diet totally, and she will need to eat low fat foods for the rest of her life to prevent a flare-up.

Oceana
Post 2

My sister has chronic pancreatitis. When her doctor diagnosed her, he prescribed her some synthetic pancreatic enzymes, because her pancreas could not secrete enough of them by itself. She had to take these enzymes with every meal to help her digest food and put on some of that weight she lost.

Though these enzymes worked, she wanted to do the most that she could to improve her condition, so she asked a dietitian to help her develop a meal plan suited to her. The pancreatitis diet includes nutritious food low in fat. She has to eat small meals frequently. The dietitian advised her to drink lots of fluids and limit her caffeine intake. He also told her not to smoke or drink alcohol, but she never did before anyway.

lighth0se33
Post 1

My mom had pancreas problems several years back. It got bad enough that she went to the hospital.

Because the doctors could not figure out what had brought on the acute pancreatitis, they just assumed that she was an alcoholic. She told them that she didn't even drink, but they would not believe her. My dad was there with her, and he told them that she didn't consume alcohol too, but still they doubted.

The doctors relied on their book knowledge because they could not figure out the cause of her problems. It makes me mad that they could not accept that the cause had to be something other than what they were taught to believe, but either way, they kept her in the hospital until she recovered.

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