By Robert M. Webman, M.D.
An accomplished gastroenterologist, Robert M. Webman, M.D., possesses specialized knowledge of pancreatic diseases. In this article, Dr. Webman provides an overview of the most common conditions afflicting the pancreas.
Role of the Pancreas
A gland located behind the stomach, the pancreas plays an important part in digestion. The pancreas helps to break down food and also regulates blood sugar levels. When the pancreas becomes damaged, individuals can maintain their health either through insulin injections, the use of medication, or transplantation surgery, depending on the specifics of the disease.
An inflammatory condition, pancreatitis occurs when the digestive enzymes of the pancreas begin working on the gland itself. Normally, the enzymes are only activated in the small intestine. For unknown reasons, they can sometimes become active in the pancreas itself, causing swelling and bleeding. Predictors of panceatitis can include alcohol abuse, genetic factors, autoimmune diseases, and high triglyceride levels. Pancreatitis can occur and recede suddenly and unexpectedly (acute pancreatitis) or gradually over time (chronic pancreatitis). Pancreatitis can also cause pseudocysts, fluid-filled sacs within the pancreas, or abscesses, pockets of infection filled with bacteria and pus. Treatment of pancreatitis includes removal of blockages and limiting the amount of food taken orally.
One of the most common kinds of cancer, pancreatic cancer can prove difficult to detect. Early symptoms include yellowing skin, weight loss, fatigue, and lower back pain. Tumors are difficult to spot because the pancreas is sandwiched between other organs. The most common treatments for pancreatic cancer include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery, which may be performed via endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP).
A genetic disease, cystic fibrosis affects the mucus glands throughout the body, including those in the respiratory and digestive systems. People with cystic fibrosis produce extremely thick and viscous mucus that can obstruct the normal functioning of the organs and lead to chronic infections. The mucus prevents the pancreas from releasing insulin and other digestive enzymes into the intestines, leading to malnutrition and a range of related complications. Previously considered a fatal childhood illness, cystic fibrosis can now be managed through aggressive medical treatment.
Both types of diabetes severely affect the pancreas. In type 1 diabetes, the immune system attacks the pancreatic cells that make insulin. In type 2 diabetes, the pancreas becomes overworked and no longer produces sufficient insulin to respond to changes in blood sugar. The standard treatment for both types of diabetes involves diet modification and insulin injections. Left untreated, diabetes causes an entire host of health problems, including damage to the heart, kidneys, eyes, and gums.