The pancreas is a multipurpose organ and several processes of the body depend on its health and proper functioning. It produces insulin, which helps to control blood sugar levels in the body, as well as enzymes and hormones that help break down food as part of the digestive process.
The pancreas is also a difficult organ to evaluate for disease or disorder due to its location in the body. It is difficult to reach for purposes of a biopsy, and blood tests can have misleading results. The best types of diagnostic exams for problems with the pancreas are MRI or CT scans, as well as specialized tests like the ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography), a type of upper endoscopy, and the MRCP (magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography), a type of imaging test. On many occasions, exploratory surgery is the only way to diagnose a condition with certainty.
Common conditions that can affect the pancreas are acute and chronic pancreatitis, hereditary pancreatitis, and pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest types of cancer a person can have.
Sudden inflammation of the pancreas is called acute pancreatitis. The primary symptom is intense pain located in the upper abdomen that can last for several days, although halfway through the first day, you will likely already have gone to the ER because the pain can be so severe.
The leading causes of acute pancreatitis are gallstones and alcohol abuse. Many other factors play a role like genetic predisposition, high cholesterol levels, electrolyte imbalances, and more. Treatment revolves around managing your pain and reducing or eliminating your risk factors.
Chronic pancreatitis differs from the acute version in that it develops gradually as it destroys the pancreatic tissues. The initial diagnosis is often confused with the acute version due to the similarity of symptoms such as upper abdominal pain and diarrhea. As it progresses, patients may suffer from malnutrition and even develop diabetes.
The leading causes of chronic pancreatitis are chronic alcohol consumption and cystic fibrosis. Supplements in the form of oral pancreatic enzymes may be necessary to aid proper digestion of food and nutrient absorption for patients with chronic pancreatitis.
Certain inherited abnormalities of the pancreas or intestine can lead to hereditary pancreatitis. The most common genetic disorder that causes pancreatitis is cystic fibrosis.
Genetic testing is a valuable tool to identify patients who may be at risk of developing hereditary pancreatitis or its complications.
Pancreatic cancer is the fourth most common cause of cancer death in men and the fifth most common in women. More than 37,000 new cases are diagnosed every year.
It is an asymptomatic condition that grows more deadly with each passing day it remains undetected.
By the time it is found, it has usually advanced to a stage where treatment is palliative at best. The first noticeable sign of pancreatic cancer is jaundice, a yellowing of the skin and eyes. At this point, radiographic imaging should be able to confirm a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.
Pancreatic cancer is notoriously resistant to many standard cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
If you or a family member has had pancreatitis or if you have a family history of pancreatic cancer, you’ll want to make regular exams by a gastroenterologist part of your preventive health care routine. Contact the GI specialists at Carlisle Digestive Disease Associates today by calling (717) 245-2228 or request an appointment now and help your pancreas take care of you by taking care of it.