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Pancreatitis (cont.)

What is pancreatitis?

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. 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.

The reported annual incidence of acute pancreatitis has ranged from 4.9 to 80 cases per 100,000 people. 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

Pancreatitis Causes

Alcohol abuse and gallstones are the two main causes of pancreatitis, accounting for 80% to 90% of all individuals diagnosed with pancreatitis.

Pancreatitis from alcohol use usually occurs in individuals who have been long-term alcohol drinkers for at least five to seven years. Most cases of chronic pancreatitis are due to alcohol abuse. Pancreatitis is often already chronic by the first time the person seeks medical attention (usually for severe pain).

Gallstones form from a buildup of material within the gallbladder, another organ in the abdomen (please see previous illustration). A gallstone can block the pancreatic duct, trapping digestive juices inside the pancreas. Pancreatitis due to gallstones tends to occur most often in women older than 50 years of age.

The remaining 10% to 20% of cases of pancreatitis have various causes, including the following:

  • medications,
  • exposure to certain chemicals,
  • injury (trauma), as might happen in a car accident or bad fall leading to abdominal trauma,
  • hereditary disease,
  • surgery and certain medical procedures,
  • infections such as mumps (not common),
  • abnormalities of the pancreas or intestine, or
  • high fat levels in the blood.

In about 15% of cases of acute pancreatitis and 40% of cases of chronic pancreatitis, the cause is never known.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 7/30/2015

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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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