The pancreas is called the “hidden organ” because it is located deep in the abdomen behind the stomach. About six to eight inches long in the adult, the organ contains thin tubes that come together like the veins of a leaf. These tubes join to form a single opening into the intestine that is located just beyond the stomach.
The pancreas produces juices and enzymes that flow through the tubes into the intestine, where they mix with food. The enzymes digest fat, protein, and carbohydrates so they can be absorbed by the intestine. Pancreatic juices, therefore, play an important role in maintaining good health. The pancreas also produces insulin, which mixes with the blood flowing through the organ. Insulin is important in regulating the amount of sugar (glucose) in the blood.
Acute pancreatitis occurs when the pancreas becomes quickly and severely inflamed. The major causes are:
- Heavy alcohol ingestion
- Gallstones or gallbladder disease
- High blood fats
- Unknown factors
Binge alcohol drinking is a common cause of acute pancreatitis. Gallbladder disease, especially where a gallstone becomes lodged in the main bile duct next to the pancreas, also causes this condition. Accidents, such as hitting the steering wheel during a car accident, can cause pancreatitis. Certain drugs, such as diuretics, can produce the disorder as can extremely high blood fat levels (triglycerides). In some families, the condition develops from unknown causes. Heredity is suspected to play a role. Also, there are causes of the disorder that occur for unknown reasons. In all cases, the digestive enzymes of the pancreas break out into the tissue of the organ rather than stay within the tubes (ducts). Severe damage to the pancreas can then result.
The main symptoms of pancreatitis are acute, severe pain in the upper abdomen, frequently accompanied by vomiting and fever. The abdomen is tender, and the patient feels and looks severely ill. The diagnosis is substantiated by measuring the blood enzymes which are elevated. A sound wave test (ultrasound) often shows an enlarged pancreas. The condition is treated by resting the pancreas while the tissues heal. This is accomplished through hospitalization, bed rest, intravenous feeding and, at times, the use of certain medications which stop the pancreas from producing enzymes.
Most patients with this condition recover well, although a few, especially those who have alcohol-induced pancreatitis, may become desperately sick. When recovered, the patient needs to correct the causative factor to prevent a recurrence, i.e., either avoid alcohol or drugs, reduce blood fats, or have gallbladder surgery.