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What is Pancreas Inflammation?

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  • Written By: M.C. Huguelet
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 24 September 2016
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Pancreas inflammation, also known as pancreatitis, is an uncomfortable and sometimes even life-threatening condition that occurs when digestive enzymes produced by the pancreas start to attack it. The condition is classified as either acute or chronic, with typical symptoms of the two types varying slightly. Pancreas inflammation has several possible causes, including gallstones, prolonged overuse of alcohol, and infection. Once pancreatitis has been diagnosed, it is often treated by addressing the underlying cause of the attack.

The pancreas is a long, thin organ located toward the rear of the upper abdomen. It has two primary functions: producing hormones which regulate the amount of sugar in the bloodstream and producing enzymes which, when released into the digestive system, aid in the breakdown of food. Pancreas inflammation occurs when these digestive enzymes go into “attack mode” before being released into the digestive system. Instead of breaking down food, they instead start to attack the pancreas itself, causing its tissues to become painfully inflamed.

Attacks of pancreas inflammation are classified as either acute or chronic. Acute attacks occur very rapidly. They are usually characterized by abdominal discomfort which can range from mild to severe, nausea, vomiting, fever, and, in some cases, back pain.

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Chronic pancreatitis is an ongoing condition which can persist for months or even years. It generally presents the same symptoms as acute pancreas inflammation. In addition, however, chronic pancreatitis may cause unexplained weight loss or greasy, foul-smelling waste. These symptoms are caused by the long-term failure of the digestive enzymes to break down food, which in turn deprives the body of the nutrients normally absorbed during the digestive process.

There are several possible causes of pancreas inflammation. Most common among these are gallstones, prolonged overuse of alcohol, and infection. Gallstones, which can suddenly block the pathway through which the digestive enzymes leave the pancreas, are most often responsible for acute pancreatitis. Long-term overuse of alcohol is the most common cause of chronic pancreatitis.

Inflammation of the pancreas is generally diagnosed through blood tests, imaging tests such as ultrasounds or X-rays, or a combination of these. Once diagnosed, pancreas inflammation may be treated with a short hospital stay, during which the ill individual is given pain medication and fed intravenously, allowing his pancreas to recuperate. Additionally, the condition may be treated by addressing its underlying cause. For instance, an alcoholic may be urged to complete a rehabilitation program, while an individual with gallstones may be advised to have his gallbladder removed. If left untreated, the condition can lead to a range of serious complications, such as scar tissue, diabetes, or kidney failure.

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