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What is Autoimmune Pancreatitis?

Autoimmune pancreatitis is a rare condition that causes chronic, gradually worsening abdominal pain and gastrointestinal disorders. It occurs when the body's immune system wrongly attacks otherwise healthy tissue in the pancreas, leading to irritation, inflammation, and scarring. Doctors do not fully understand why autoimmune pancreatitis occurs, but it has been associated with other autoimmune disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome. Corticosteroids are usually effective at managing the immediate symptoms of autoimmune pancreatitis, but since the condition cannot be cured, problems are likely to recur.

The pancreas aids in digestion by producing enzymes that break down food in the gastrointestinal tract. If the organ is compromised due to chronic inflammation and scarring, a person can experience stomach cramps, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Over time, calcium and other minerals can build up in the pancreas and form stones. Calcified stones can cause blockages in the pancreatic ducts and lead to potentially life-threatening infections.

When a patient exhibits symptoms of pancreatitis, a specialist can conduct several diagnostic tests to look for underlying causes. The doctor first asks about alcohol use, familial history of pancreatic cancer, and current medication regimens to narrow down the search for a cause. Blood tests are performed to check for autoantibodies and increased white blood cell counts, and computerized tomography scans are used to study the physical appearance of the pancreas. A doctor may also decide to collect a pancreatic tissue sample using an endoscope to look for signs of cancer.

Autoimmune pancreatitis is diagnosed when it is clear that alcoholism, cancer, and other common causal factors are not responsible for symptoms. Many patients with the condition also suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, cirrhosis, or another autoimmune problem, which helps doctors confirm the diagnosis. In mild cases, treatment involves a course of corticosteroids to reduce inflammation and help prevent tissue scarring. Patients who drink alcohol or smoke are instructed to quit to reduce the chances of worsening their conditions. Specialized exercise and low-fat diet plans are usually suggested as well.

Surgery may be necessary if symptoms become severe. A surgeon can use an endoscope and specialized tools to cut away damaged tissue, clear obstructions in the pancreatic duct, and drain excess fluid buildup. In advanced cases, open surgery may be required to place a supportive stent in the pancreatic duct or remove part of the damaged organ. Most surgeries are successful in relieving symptoms and extending patients' lives for several years, but autoimmune pancreatitis often returns despite treatment efforts.

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