The pancreas is an organ located behind the stomach that aids in the digestion of fats, and regulates hormones like insulin. Chronic pancreatitis is a painful swelling of the pancreas that can result in serious health complications.
Some conditions can predispose one toward chronic pancreatitis. These can include long-term excessive use of alcohol or alcoholism, disorders of the thyroid, and hyperlipidemia or abnormally high blood cholesterol levels. Sometimes obstructions in the pancreas can lead to chronic pancreatitis. In other cases, no cause can be identified.
The most marked symptom of chronic pancreatitis is severe abdominal pain, which may be felt mostly in the upper abdomen. Pain can last for several days, and may also be felt in the mid-back. Pain tends to worsen after consumption of foods or liquids, and may be particularly intense when one drinks alcohol. Additional symptoms of chronic pancreatitis include fatty stools that may appear pale, weight loss, and nausea and/or vomiting.
When these symptoms are present, there is cause for concern and one should see a doctor immediately to rule out other conditions affecting the pancreas. Other pancreatic conditions, particularly an obstruction of the pancreas may be immediately life threatening.
Normal tests to diagnose chronic pancreatitis include blood tests like the serum lipase and serum amylase tests that evaluate pancreatic function. One may also be asked to provide a sample of bowel movement to test for excess fat in stools.
Physicians may also order computerized axial tomography (CAT or CT) scans of the abdomen, and perform an ultrasound to check for obstructions in the pancreas. Definitive diagnosis may not be made without laparotomy, a surgery that evaluates the organs in the abdomen for damage or problems.
Chronic pancreatitis may cause some serious and uncomfortable complications. Inability to digest fats and produce appropriate insulin can result in diabetes. Nutrients may fail to be absorbed properly since fat cannot be absorbed appropriately. Some late complications with chronic pancreatitis may include ascites, which is excess fluid building up in the abdominal cavities.
Treatment for chronic pancreatitis may include a low fat diet, pain medications to help resolve stomach discomfort, treatment for diabetes when necessary, and supplementation of enzymes that the pancreas is failing to produce. When an obstruction is causing chronic pancreatitis, this may need to be surgically removed in order to restore function to the pancreas. In rare cases the pancreas must be completely removed.
Patients are also required to never consume alcohol, as this is one of the most common reasons for return of symptoms. Often a patient with one episode of pancreatitis can avoid having the condition develop into chronic pancreatitis if the above treatments are followed carefully.
Chronic pancreatitis can be managed, but it is often a serious illness that can lead to death. It is especially valuable to confirm diagnosis of pancreatitis since its symptoms are nearly identical to those of pancreatic cancer, which has a high mortality rate. Those with chronic pancreatitis need to remain in communication with their doctors or specialists in case complications occur that necessitate emergency treatment, such as sudden blockage of the pancreas.