What is pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas that may occur as an acute, painful attack, or may be a chronic condition developing gradually over time. It is caused when pancreatic enzyme secretions build up and begin to digest the organ itself. Another term for this condition is auto digestion, which occurs when, for some unknown reason, the pancreas' powerful
enzymes are activated in the pancreas itself rather than in the duodenum. It is believed that trypsin sets off a domino effect, activating other enzymes to speed the auto digestive process.
The pancreas is a soft, elongated gland situated at the back of the upper abdominal cavity behind the stomach. It is divided into the head (through which the common bile duct runs as it enters the duodenum) and the body (which extends across the spine and the tail), which is close to the left kidney and to the spleen. Because the pancreas lies at the back of the abdominal cavity, diseases of the pancreas may be difficult to diagnose.
The pancreas has two main functions produces a series of enzymes which help in the digestion of food. Enzymes produced in the pancreas are important in the digestion of proteins, carbohydrates and, particularly, fats. Bicarbonate is also produced in large amounts to neutralise the acid produced by the stomach. The pancreas produces a series of hormones which are important in maintaining a normal level of sugar in the blood. The best known of these hormones is insulin. Insulin deficiency of this hormone results in the development of diabetes. Another hormone (glucagon) helps to raise blood sugar, and several other hormones control intestinal function.
Pancreatitis may be acute (new, short term) or chronic (ongoing, long term). Either type can be very severe, even life threatening. Either can have serious complications. Acute pancreatitis usually begins soon after the damage to the pancreas begins. The attack is typically very mild, but about 20% are very severe. It lasts for a short time and usually resolves completely by the pancreas returning to its normal state. Some people have only one attack; others have more than one, but the pancreas always returns to its normal state. 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, becoming worse over time.