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 an 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 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. Therefore, pancreatic juices 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.
Chronic pancreatitis occurs mostly in people who excessively drink alcohol or who repeatedly binge drink alcohol. The main symptoms are recurrent, dull, or moderate pain without the severe toxic features of acute pancreatitis. Treatment consists of rest, medication, and certain food restrictions. Alcohol consumption is prohibited permanently. However, in cases where damage is extensive, chronic pancreatitis and pain can occur even when alcohol consumption has stopped.
At this time, there is no gold standard test for this condition, but diagnosis can be made by measuring blood enzymes and by performing x-ray and ultrasound exams, as well as a test called an ERCP. In this test, a flexible tube is passed through the mouth into the intestine while the patient is lightly sedated. A small plastic catheter is inserted into the pancreas ducts and an x-ray dye is injected. The internal anatomy of the pancreas can then be viewed for a diagnosis.
Occasionally a problem develops when the patient becomes dependent on pain medicine to control the recurrent symptoms. In some cases, surgery may be recommended to provide relief.