What is the pancreas?

The pancreas is a large gland in the abdomen located behind the stomach and next to the upper part of the small intestine (the duodenum). The pancreas has two main jobs:

  1. It discharges powerful digestive enzymes into the small intestine to aid the digestion of carbohydrates, proteins, and fat.
  2. It releases the hormones insulin and glucagon into the bloodstream. These hormones are involved in blood glucose (sugar) metabolism, regulating how the body stores and uses food for energy.

What is pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis is a rare disease in which the pancreas becomes inflamed. Pancreatic damage occurs when the digestive enzymes are activated and begin attacking the pancreas.

In very severe cases, pancreatitis can result in bleeding into the gland, serious tissue damage, infection, and cyst formation. Severe pancreatitis can also cause damage if enzymes and toxins are released into the bloodstream, which can harm other vital organs such as the heart, lungs, and kidneys.

Pancreatitis develops gradually and tends to become progressively worse. There are two forms of pancreatitis: acute and chronic.

What causes pancreatitis?

Acute pancreatitis is a sudden inflammation of the pancreas that occurs over a short period of time. In more than 80% of the cases, acute pancreatitis is caused by bile duct stones or heavy alcohol use. Other causes include:

  • Medications
  • High triglyceride levels
  • Infections
  • Trauma
  • Metabolic disorders
  • Surgery

In about 10-15% of the cases, the cause of acute pancreatitis is unknown. The severity of acute pancreatitis may range from mild abdominal (belly) discomfort to a severe, life-threatening illness. However, the majority of patients with acute pancreatitis (greater than 80%) recover completely after receiving the appropriate treatment.

Chronic pancreatitis occurs most commonly after an episode of acute pancreatitis and is the result of ongoing inflammation of the pancreas. Chronic pancreatitis can be caused by prolonged alcohol use or smoking. It can also be caused by metabolic disorders. Very rarely, patients can have chronic pancreatitis that runs in families (hereditary pancreatitis). Patients with chronic pancreatitis may suffer with severe pain and loss of pancreatic function. This can cause abnormalities with digestion and blood sugar.

What are the symptoms of pancreatitis?

Most patients with acute pancreatitis have upper abdominal pain that radiates (spreads) to their backs. Patients may describe this as a "boring sensation" that is primarily aggravated by eating and slowly becomes worse. Their abdomens may be swollen and very tender. Patients may also have associated nausea, vomiting, fever, and an increased heart rate.

The symptoms of chronic pancreatitis may include the following:

  • Constant pain that radiates to the back. In some patients, the pain may be disabling.
  • Poor absorption of food, leading to weight loss. Patients may lose weight, even when their appetite and eating habits are normal. This poor absorption occurs because the body is not secreting enough pancreatic enzymes to break down the food normally.
  • Diabetes (elevated blood sugar) may develop if the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas become damaged.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/20/2016.


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