The pancreas is an important organ in the body, but what exactly does it do and what happens when it becomes inflamed? Expert general surgeon Mr Timothy Rees Worthington provides a guide to pancreatitis, its causes, and treatment.
What is the function of the pancreas?
The pancreas has many functions, but broadly speaking they can be divided into:
- The production of enzymes used in the digestion of food, including fats, carbohydrates, and proteins.
- The production of a variety of hormones vital to metabolism and in particular the production of insulin, which is important for control of the level of sugars in the blood.
What is pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis simply means inflammation of the pancreas. This can either be acute or chronic, but there can be overlap between the two types. Acute pancreatitis often causes severe abdominal pain, which would require admission to the hospital. Chronic pancreatitis can also be painful, but it can also present over a longer period of time with diarrhoea, weight loss and nutritional deficiencies.
How dangerous is pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis can, on occasion, be severe and even life-threatening. As such, both acute and chronic pancreatitis should be managed by a specialist in this field. It is important that acute pancreatitis is recognised early and treated appropriately, as intensive care can be necessary in patients with deteriorating symptoms. Occasionally patients with acute pancreatitis can require multiple operations and prolonged hospital stays, but milder forms usually settle quickly and can be treated by dealing with the cause.
What causes pancreatitis?
The most common cause of acute pancreatitis in the UK is gallstones, and alcohol is often implicated. In addition to these two most common causes, a variety of medications can cause pancreatitis; rarer causes include metabolic disturbances and trauma.
Chronic pancreatitis can result from previous acute attacks, and smoking and alcohol are the most common causes of chronic pancreatitis. Less commonly, abnormalities of the pancreatic duct can lead to longstanding obstruction and the development of chronic pancreatitis.
Can you be cured of pancreatitis?
Patients with mild acute pancreatitis typically go on to make a complete recovery and patients with chronic pancreatitis can live a normal life with support from a specialist. Severe pancreatitis can require a prolonged hospital stay and multiple surgical and endoscopic interventions, but once patients have recovered from the acute attack, they normally make a good recovery and can return to a normal lifestyle and to work.
Patients with chronic pancreatitis need to avoid the precipitating factors, usually cigarettes and alcohol, but with nutritional support and specialist input, they too can lead a normal life with monitoring to exclude diabetes and the development of nutritional deficiencies.