Pancreatitis is a condition that causes inflammation of the pancreas, an elongated gland located behind the stomach. The pancreas produces special chemicals that aid in digestion and it also produces insulin, a hormone that helps the body regulate blood sugar (glucose) levels. The inflammation associated with pancreatitis occurs when the digestive chemicals produced in the pancreas become activated before they’re expelled from the organ. Pancreatitis can be acute (developing suddenly) or chronic (occurring over a period of many years). Very mild pancreatitis can resolve on its own, but more severe cases can cause life-threatening complications.
Pancreatitis can cause symptoms like:
pain in the upper abdomen
belly pain that radiates into the back or feels worse after eating
tenderness when the upper belly area is touched
unintentional weight loss
Chronic pancreatitis can also cause very smelly, slick bowel movements. Without treatment, repeated bouts of pancreatitis can cause scarring and lead to organ dysfunction, increasing the risk for digestive disorders and diabetes.
Several factors can lead to pancreatitis, including:
use of certain medicines
a family history of pancreatitis
high blood levels of calcium or triglycerides
abdominal surgery, including endoscopic procedures used to remove gallstones without removing the gallbladder
In some cases, a specific cause cannot be identified.
Pancreatitis can be diagnosed with a blood test that measures levels of pancreatic enzymes. Stool samples may also be used to aid in diagnosis, and in some cases, diagnostic imaging tests like CT scans, MRI or ultrasound also may be used.
Many people with pancreatitis can benefit from dietary and lifestyle changes, but often, hospitalization is required to reduce inflammation and related symptoms and to improve pancreatic function. Once inflammation is resolved, the underlying cause of pancreatitis can be treated. Many patients with pancreatitis have gallstones, and having the gallbladder removed can help prevent pancreatitis from recurring. Other patients may require surgery to repair the pancreas.
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