Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas. The pancreas is located deep within the abdominal cavity, behind the stomach and in front of the spine. It produces digestive enzymes that help the body use and store energy, and it also regulates blood sugar levels. The pancreas secretes enzymes that flow into the small intestine through a system of pancreatic ducts. Normally, these enzymes are not activated until they reach the small intestine. Pancreatitis occurs if these enzymes become active inside the pancreas and as a result begin “digesting” it, causing damage to the organ.
The primary symptom of pancreatitis is pain in the upper abdomen that may spread to the back. The pain is often more severe after eating.
Other symptoms include:
- a swollen and tender abdomen
- rapid pulse
The type and severity of symptoms varies with each individual and with the type of pancreatitis.
Types of Pancreatitis
- Acute pancreatitis usually occurs when the pancreas suddenly becomes inflamed and then recovers in a short period of time. It is usually caused by excessive alcohol consumption or gallstones. The first symptom of acute pancreatitis is pain that may come on suddenly or gradually get worse. Approximately 80,000 cases are reported in the U.S. every year, with 20 percent of cases considered severe.
- Chronic pancreatitis is caused by inflammation that results in chronic scarring, permanent damage and loss of function of the pancreas. Destruction of pancreatic tissue leads to some or all of the following problems: pain, diabetes and malabsorption of food. Alcoholism causes 70 to 80 percent of chronic pancreatitis cases in adults. Severity of symptoms vary from person to person.
- Hereditary pancreatitis involves recurrent episodes of acute pancreatic attacks that can lead to chronic pancreatitis. It is a rare genetic condition that affects approximately 1,000 individuals in the U.S. There are currently three genetic tests for this condition, which test for mutations on the PRSS1 gene, the SPINK1 gene and the cystic fibrosis gene.
- Autoimmune pancreatitis, also known as sclerosing pancreatitis or primary inflammatory pancreatitis, is when the body’s immune system attacks its own cells and tissues, or in this case pancreatic tissue. Inflammation of the pancreas results in enlargement of the pancreas, narrowing of the main pancreatic duct and sometimes chronic pancreatitis. Often, there are no symptoms.
Risk Factors for Pancreatic Cancer
Both chronic and hereditary pancreatitis are risk factors for pancreatic cancer. It is estimated that approximately 4 percent of patients develop pancreatic cancer within 20 years of diagnosis of chronic pancreatitis. Individuals with hereditary pancreatitis appear to have as much as a 40 percent lifetime risk of pancreatic cancer. In both cases, it is believed that pancreatic cancer develops because of prolonged tissue damage from chronic pancreatitis. Take the Risk Assessment Test to learn more about risk factors associated with pancreatic cancer.