Your pancreas is the organ that produces insulin and helps digest food. If it becomes inflamed, it can turn into a serious health concern.
When a flare-up, called acute pancreatitis, becomes chronic, it can cause irreversible scarring of the pancreas and its ability to function. It can even lead to pancreatic cancer.
“Pancreatitis is the most common gastrointestinal diagnosis for hospital admission. The causes are common and multiple,” says Dr. Jamie Barkin, a gastroenterologist specializing in pancreatic diseases at the University of Miami Health System.
What are the most common causes of pancreatitis?
- Having gallstones, particularly in women in their 40s who have had children and may be overweight
- Overindulging in substances seen by your body as toxins, like cigarette smoke and alcohol
- Infections, such as the mumps
- Having high blood triglycerides
Family history also plays a role, says Dr. Barkin. “If you have a family history of gallstones, acute or chronic pancreatitis or pancreatic cancer, even cystic fibrosis, you can be screened for that genetic predisposition and monitored closely.”
Healthy habits may help you prevent pancreatitis.
- If you smoke, stop. Smoking leads to pancreatic disease, osteoporosis and a host of cancers.
- Keep your alcohol intake low. Alcohol is a toxin to the pancreas, particularly in excess.
- Do everything you can to get rid of excess weight that can lead to gallbladder stones and pancreatic tumors.
- Report any suspicious symptoms to a specialist.
- Have any possible family history checked out.
What is the danger of pancreatitis?
Within the pancreas, there are two functions that can be disrupted.
“One part produces enzymes that help us digest our food,” says Dr. Barkin. “When the pancreas can’t do its job, you can have diarrhea, weight loss, and can’t absorb vitamins and minerals including vitamin D, which means your bones will soften and you could develop osteoporosis and fractures.”
The pancreas also produces insulin to metabolize, or process, the sugars in our diet. Without that insulin, patients may develop diabetes.
Repeated episodes of acute pancreatitis can lead to scarring and raise your risk of developing pancreatic cancer. It is critical to make sure you talk to your doctor about any family history or prior episodes of acute pancreatitis and report any possible symptoms.
Symptoms of acute pancreatitis include abdominal pain – that makes you feel as if you have been punched – in the upper part of your abdomen and possibly radiating to the back. You may also have nausea and vomiting. Those symptoms may also indicate gallbladder disease or an ulcer, so it is important to have them checked out promptly. “It is so critical with an acute pancreatic disease that we discover the cause and get specialty care to prevent the condition from becoming chronic. In 20 percent of the cases we don’t find a cause, so an experienced specialist is even more important,” says Barkin.
“The importance of an interdisciplinary team is crucial to the care of patients with often complex pancreatic diseases and problems,” says Dr. Barkin. “Our interdisciplinary team of gastroenterologists with specialty training in pancreatology, therapeutic endoscopists, surgeons, oncologists, endocrinologists, radiologists, radiation oncologists, and pathologists work together closely to provide comprehensive care to our patients. This leads to improved outcomes for our patients, bettering quantity and quality of life.”
For more information and to schedule an appointment with a pancreatic specialist, please contact: (305)-243-UMGI (8644).
Mary Jo Blackwood, RN, MPH, is a contributing writer for UMiami Health News.