How Does Pancreatitis Affect the Human Body?
The pancreas is a gland located in the upper part of the abdomen. It produces two main types of substances: digestive juices and digestive hormones.
Inflammation of the pancreas is termed pancreatitis and its inflammation has various causes.
Once the gland becomes inflamed, the condition can progress to swelling of the gland and surrounding blood vessels, bleeding, infection, and damage to the gland.
Pancreatitis may be acute or chronic. Either type can be very severe, even life-threatening.
Either type can have serious complications.
Acute pancreatitis usually begins soon after the damage to the pancreas begins.
Chronic pancreatitis begins as acute pancreatitis. If the pancreas becomes scarred during the attack of acute pancreatitis, it cannot return to its normal state. The damage to the gland continues, worsening over time.
Pancreatitis can occur in people of all ages, although it is very rare in children. Pancreatitis occurs in men and women, although chronic pancreatitis is more common in men than in women.
What Are Symptoms of Acute Pancreatitis?
The most common symptom of acute pancreatitis or pancreas pain is abdominal pain. Almost everybody with acute pancreatitis experiences abdominal pain.
The pain may come on suddenly or build up gradually. If the pain begins suddenly, it is typically very severe. If the pain builds up gradually, it starts out mild but may become severe.
The pain is usually centered in the upper middle or upper left part of the belly (abdomen).
The pain is often described as if it radiates from the front of the abdomen through to the back.
* The pain often begins or worsens after eating
* The pain typically lasts a few days
* The pain may feel worse when a person lies flat on his or her back.
People with acute pancreatitis usually feel very sick. Besides pain, people may have other symptoms and signs.
Nausea (Some people do vomit, but vomiting does not relieve the symptoms.)
Fever, chills, or both
Swollen abdomen which is tender to the touch
Rapid heartbeat (A rapid heartbeat may be due to the pain and fever, dehydration from vomiting and not eating, or it may be a compensation mechanism if a person is bleeding internally.)
In very severe cases with infection or bleeding, a person may become dehydrated and have low blood pressure, in addition to the following symptoms:
* Weakness or feeling tired (fatigue)
* Feeling lightheaded or faint
* Confusion or difficulty concentrating
* Cullen's sign (bluish skin around the belly button)
* Grey-Turner sign (reddish-brown skin discoloration along the flanks)
* Erythematous skin nodules
If the blood pressure becomes extremely low, the organs of the body do not get enough blood to carry out their normal functions. This very dangerous condition is called circulatory shock and is referred to simply as shock.
Severe acute pancreatitis is a medical emergency.
What Are the Symptoms of Chronic Pancreatitis?
Pain is less common in chronic pancreatitis than in acute pancreatitis. Some people have pain, but many people do not experience abdominal pain.
For those people who do have pain, the pain is usually constant and may be disabling; however, the pain often goes away as the condition worsens.
This lack of pain is a bad sign because it probably means that the pancreas has stopped working.
Other symptoms of chronic pancreatitis are related to long-term complications, such as the following:
* Inability to produce insulin (diabetes)
* Inability to digest food (weight loss and nutritional deficiencies)
* Bleeding (low blood count, or anemia)
* Liver problems (jaundice)
How Is Pancreatitis Diagnosed?
When a health-care professional identifies symptoms suggestive of pancreatitis, specific questions are asked about the person's symptoms, lifestyle and habits, and medical and surgical history.
The answers to these questions and the results of the physical examination allow the health-care professional to rule out some conditions and make the correct diagnosis.
In most cases, laboratory tests are needed. The tests check the functioning of several body systems, including the following:
* Pancreas, liver, and kidney functions (including levels of pancreatic enzymes amylase and lipase)
* Signs of infections, for example, fever or fatigue
* Blood cell counts indicating signs of anemia
* Pregnancy test
* Blood sugar, electrolyte levels (an imbalance suggests dehydration) and calcium level
Results of the blood tests may be inconclusive if the pancreas is still making digestive enzymes and insulin.
Diagnostic imaging tests are usually needed to look for complications of pancreatitis, including gallstones.
Diagnostic imaging tests may include the following:
X-ray, CT scan, Ultrsound, Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP)