The pancreas is a vital organ in the digestive system that is located behind the lower part of the stomach. This organ is responsible for producing both digestive enzymes and insulin. The enzymes produced by the pancreas help digest carbohydrates and break down fats found in food being digested. The pancreatic duct allows these enzymes to flow into the small intestine. Insulin, a hormone produced within the pancreas, is released directly into the bloodstream to regulate blood sugar levels.
Inflammation of the pancreas can be either acute or chronic.
Acute pancreatitis comes on suddenly, and is marked by severe pain in the upper to middle abdomen. Most patients also have a low-grade fever and may have yellowing of the skin (jaundice). Acute pancreatitis can be life threatening and these symptoms should not be ignored. Seek medical help immediately. Acute pancreatitis can be caused by include gallstones, alcohol use, reaction to medication, or infections.
Chronic pancreatitis is a long-term disease that causes the pancreas to lose function over time. Symptoms include abdominal pain, fatty stools, nausea, weight loss, fatigue, and excessive thirst. Excessive alcohol consumption is the most common cause of chronic pancreatitis. Other causes include autoimmune disorders, such as IBD and PBC, cystic fibrosis, and malformations of the ducts within the pancreas.
There is no cure for chronic pancreatitis, but there are treatments that may help restore some quality of life for patients. Chronic pancreatitis is a risk factor for developing pancreatic cancer and should be monitored regularly by a gastroenterologist.
Other risk factors for developing cancer of the pancreas include smoking, family history, certain hereditary cancer syndromes, and certain types of lesions found within the pancreas.