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Complications of inflamed pancreas can damage kidney, tissue, says physician – Punch Newspapers


Dr Adedoyin Soyele, a general practitioner and principal medical officer at UNILAG Medical Centre, University of Lagos, Akoka, Lagos State, tells ALEXANDER OKERE the causes and management of pancreatitis

What is the pancreas?

The human pancreas is an important organ in the body, which is in the back of the upper abdomen, behind the stomach, and under the liver. It is about 15 centimetres long and has a wider head, which narrows down its body as it curves upwards until it gets to the tail, which ends near the spleen.

What are the major functions of this organ of the body?

The human pancreas is important because it is made up of glands that primarily perform two functions, the exocrine and endocrine functions.

How different are the two?

The exocrine pancreas secretes digestive juices that contain enzymes that are necessary for food digestion. These pancreatic enzymes, lipase, amylase, and protease are released into ducts which all come together to form the pancreatic duct. The pancreatic duct meets the common bile duct at the first part of the small intestine, the duodenum, and when food reaches that part of the digestive system the pancreatic enzymes allow fat, carbohydrates, and protein to be broken down into smaller pieces for ready absorption.

The endocrine pancreas are cells located in the pancreas, which mostly produce hormones that are important for regulating blood sugar levels, insulin, and glucagon. Insulin is produced by the beta cells of the pancreas and allows the body to decrease blood glucose levels when blood glucose is high, while glucagon, which is produced by the alpha cells of the pancreas, helps the body in releasing glucose into the bloodstream when blood glucose levels are low.

What happens when the pancreas is damaged?

When the pancreas is damaged, the normal functions that the pancreas performs may be compromised, and this may lead to poor food absorption and improper blood glucose regulation. The person may subsequently lose weight without trying, and or may develop diabetes mellitus, among other complications.

What is pancreatitis?

This is inflammation of the pancreas. There is redness and swelling and pain in the pancreas. It may be acute (short-term) or it may be chronic (long-term), due to recurrent inflammation of the pancreas.

When we use the term, acute, we mean short-lasting, while chronic is something that has been lasting for a long time. Acute pancreatitis is a temporary form of pancreatitis, it develops suddenly, while chronic pancreatitis is a recurrent form of pancreatitis where the pancreas gets damaged recurrently over time.

Acute pancreatitis may be caused by gallstones, heavy alcohol ingestion, or infections among other causes, while chronic pancreatitis may be caused by long term alcoholic use, or genetic diseases e.g., cystic fibrosis.

Is it a disease or just a medical condition?

This is a medical condition that may occur due to many reasons. It is not an infectious disease.

Is it hereditary?

There is a rare form of pancreatitis that is called hereditary pancreatitis that may occur in a few people who have the gene for this.

 What are the causes of pancreatitis?

The commonest cause of pancreatitis is prolonged alcohol consumption among alcoholics, these are people who consume alcoholic drinks for several years; gallstone disease, trauma to the abdomen, some drugs and sometimes, in more developed climes, a medical procedure called ERCP (Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography) which is used to diagnose and treat some bile duct or pancreatic duct problems.

Less commonly pancreatitis is caused by infections which are usually viral, heredity, some toxins such as organophosphates that are found in some insecticides, hypertriglyceridemia (high triglyceride levels in the blood), high calcium levels in the blood (hypercalcemia), after surgical procedures, and tumours, among others. Sometimes, the cause is not known, and this is called idiopathic pancreatitis.

Cystic fibrosis and gallstones, as you mentioned earlier, are said to be one of the causes of pancreatitis. How do they trigger it?

Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disorder that leads to abnormally thick mucus secretions. These secretions can be thick enough to obstruct the pancreatic duct. The same thing happens with gallstones as they too may cause an obstruction in the common bile duct, and these may lead to inflammation of the pancreas, causing pancreatitis.

Who is at risk of pancreatitis?

People who have a history of chronic heavy alcohol consumption, who have elevated cholesterol levels, or people who have genetic risks such as people with cystic fibrosis among others are all at risk for pancreatitis. People who are also obese or have a history of diabetes or hyperparathyroidism – which may lead to elevated blood calcium levels, are at risk of developing pancreatitis.

How are acute and chronic pancreatitis different in terms of their symptoms and the organs they affect?

Acute pancreatitis, as I earlier highlighted, develops suddenly and the symptoms may last for a few days, while chronic pancreatitis is ongoing, giving rise to progressive damage to the pancreas. The symptoms of acute pancreatitis are more dramatic compared with the symptoms of chronic pancreatitis. There is a pain in the upper abdomen that may radiate to the back, this pain usually starts as dull, and steady, before intensifying to a constant pain.

There may be fever, jaundice, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal bloating, and it is possible sometimes to feel some abdominal hardness among other symptoms. The symptoms of chronic pancreatitis may develop over time, especially when it leads to pancreatic insufficiency. There may be weight loss in the patient, jaundice, abdominal pain, or back pain, which is usually worse after eating. There may be fatty or oily stools, due to poor metabolism of fats, and the patient may develop a sudden onset of diabetes mellitus.

What happens when acute pancreatitis becomes serious?

I believe that you mean when acute pancreatitis becomes complicated. Complications that may arise from this include developing an abscess in the pancreas, or a pseudocyst. There may be necrosis (death) of some of the tissue of the pancreas.

What other complications can pancreatitis cause?

Yes, there may be complications that arise from pancreatitis. Some of these complications include a condition where the pancreatic juices collect outside the normal ducts to form pouch-like collections that are called pseudocysts and may be felt on abdominal examination, as a firm mass in the middle or upper left abdomen.

Another complication arises when the blood supply to the pancreas is cut off (ischemia) and this may lead to the death of some of the tissues of the pancreas, and subsequently infection from this. The infection may spread into the bloodstream causing sepsis and leading to further complications that may arise from severe sepsis such as kidney damage, and shock.

There may also be respiratory problems arising from pancreatitis. Respiratory distress may occur when there is a significant accumulation of fluid in the pleural space.

Is it possible for people to mistake pancreatitis for a fever based on the symptoms? Can this lead to complications?

Fever is a symptom where the patient has elevated body temperature. Unfortunately, most people assume that when they have elevated body temperatures, it is due to malaria. Sometimes, they are also told that they have typhoid fever when they visit the wrong places. So, yes, pancreatitis can be mistaken for another condition that has fever as one of its symptoms. The obvious complication that may arise from this is that the patient will not receive the right treatment on time. These may lead to further complications of pancreatitis.

What are the proper ways to diagnose pancreatitis?

The proper diagnosis of pancreatitis involves obtaining a history of the symptoms that the patient is experiencing. After this, the doctor will perform a physical examination of the patient, and next, they will conduct laboratory blood investigations to check for elevated pancreatic enzymes and liver enzymes, among other investigations such as the blood count, triglyceride levels, etc. A stool test is also usually ordered.

Imaging procedures such as the ultrasound, and abdominal CT scan also help in diagnosing pancreatitis. The abdominal CT is more informative about pancreatitis than the ultrasound. Some specialised imaging procedures include magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography also known as MRI, and endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography. These are done in some special instances.

How is pancreatitis treated?

Usually after diagnosis, the doctor treats acute cases of pancreatitis by allowing the pancreas to rest and recover, preventing damage to the pancreas, by using IV fluids, and giving pain relief medication. There may be a need to administer antibiotics to the patient too, especially when the blood count shows evidence of an infection.

Chronic pancreatitis is usually treated by targeting the causes if known, giving pain relief, improving the functions of the pancreas, and tackling any complications that may have arisen because of the pancreatitis.

Are there home remedies?

I am not aware of home remedies for pancreatitis, however, adopting a healthy lifestyle overall is important. This includes reducing alcohol consumption, stopping cigarette smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, or losing weight safely, and reducing the amount of dietary fats that a person consumes. All these help to keep a person healthy.

At what stage of pancreatitis is surgery required?

Sometimes, a surgical procedure may be necessary to treat pancreatitis, such as gall bladder removal in patients who have gallstones causing pancreatitis. There may be a need to remove a damaged part of the pancreas in some rare instances. Surgery may be indicated when a person has gallstones causing pancreatitis, and this may be surgery to remove the gallbladder. It may also be necessary to remove damaged necrotic parts of the pancreas in chronic pancreatitis, but usually, when some parts of the pancreas are removed, doctors will monitor the patient closely after to make sure that the patient doesn’t have malabsorption or indigestion and to monitor the blood glucose levels and determine if the patient may become diabetic.

Apart from limiting or avoiding the consumption of alcohol, what other ways can pancreatitis be prevented?

Adopting a healthy lifestyle overall is very important for good health, and as earlier stated, may involve some lifestyle changes to improve the overall health of a person.

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