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Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis Overview

Pancreatitis simply means inflammation of the pancreas. Located in the upper part of the abdomen, behind the stomach, the pancreas plays an important role in digestion. The pancreas is a gland, producing two main types of substances: digestive juices and digestive hormones.

Digestive juices include enzymes and bicarbonate. They travel through a small tube called the pancreatic duct that connects the pancreas to the small intestine to the small intestine (duodenum).

  • There, the enzymes help in the break down of proteins and fats in the foods that you eat to permit the nutrients to be absorbed.
  • The bicarbonate neutralizes stomach acid.
  • Digestive hormones, mainly insulin and glucagon, are released into the bloodstream. They control the body's blood sugar level, a major source of energy, and are an important role in the cause of diabetes.

Inflammation of the pancreas 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. There, digestive juices become trapped and start "digesting" the pancreas itself. If this damage persists, the gland may not be able to carry out normal functions.

Pancreatitis may be acute (new, short-term) or chronic (ongoing, long-term). 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. Attacks are typically very mild, but about 20% of them are very severe. An attack lasts for a short time and usually resolves completely as the pancreas returns to its normal state. Some people have only one attack, whereas other people have more than one attack, 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, worsening over time.

About 80,000 cases of acute pancreatitis occur in the United States each year. 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.

Illustration of the Pancreas, Liver, and Gallbladder
Illustration of the Pancreas, Liver, and Gallbladder

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Patient Comments & Reviews

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Pancreatitis - Diet Prevention

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Pancreatitis - Symptoms

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Read What Your Physician is Reading on Medscape

Pancreatitis, Acute »

The pancreas is a gland located in the upper, posterior abdomen and is responsible for insulin production (endocrine pancreas) and the manufacture and secretion of digestive enzymes (exocrine pancreas) leading to carbohydrate, fat, and protein metabolism.

Read More on Medscape Reference »


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