Diagnosing pancreatic diseases can be challenging. Many of the symptoms of these diseases are similar to other conditions, which means it can be difficult for healthcare professionals to identify the issue, the cause, and choose an appropriate treatment.
To help you better understand pancreatic disease, here is a breakdown of the top three most common conditions — plus how doctors can make a more definitive diagnosis.
But first, here’s a little background on the pancreas.
How Does the Pancreas Work?
The pancreas is a vital organ located to the left of the abdominal area, behind the stomach. It’s close to the duodenum, the beginning of the small intestine. The pancreas produces enzymes and hormones necessary for maintaining proper body function.
The digestive enzymes produced by the pancreas are necessary for the breakdown of food in the small intestine. The islet cells of the pancreas secrete the hormones insulin and glucagon, which control and balance your body’s blood sugar.
Here are three of the most common complex pancreatic diseases:
Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas, and it occurs when digestive enzymes attack the pancreas, causing swelling and irritation.
There are two types of pancreatitis:
- Acute Pancreatitis: This form of pancreatitis is marked by a sudden onset of pain, which usually only lasts a short time. Acute pancreatitis is often caused by gallstones blocking a bile duct. Medical intervention can usually relieve the pain, resolve the issue and allow the pancreas to return to normal.
- Chronic Pancreatitis: This is a long-lasting pain and inflammation of the pancreas. Unlike acute pancreatitis, its symptoms come and go over time. It can worsen over time and lead to permanent damage within the pancreas.
If left untreated, this condition can interfere with the body’s ability to digest food or produce insulin. Risk factors for chronic pancreatitis include several medical conditions, injury and consumption of alcohol. It’s usually more common in men, especially those between the ages of 30 and 40, according to The National Pancreas Foundation.
2. Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency
Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) occurs when the pancreas fails to produce enough of a digestive enzyme used to digest food in the small intestine. Symptoms of EPI include loss of appetite, severe abdominal pain, a feeling of fullness, weight loss and diarrhea. However, some patients won’t experience any symptoms until they experience loss of function.
A few conditions that can lead to EPI include:
- Type 1 diabetes (insulin-dependent)
- Chronic pancreatitis
- Genetic diseases (such as cystic fibrosis or Shwachman-Diamond Syndrome)
- Surgeries of the stomach, pancreas or small intestine
Because EPI prevents digestive enzymes from doing their job, patients may suffer malabsorption of necessary nutrients, which leads to weight loss and malnutrition. Treatment often includes a dietary plan, supplements and enzyme replacement therapy.
3. Pancreatic Cancer
Pancreatic cancer is a serious disease that can be resistant to many standard life-saving cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
Cancer of the pancreas is typically diagnosed in advanced stages of the disease, and only rarely causes any troubling symptoms. One of the most common symptoms is painless jaundice, which causes yellowing of the skin, and patients often present with abdominal pain.
Early detection is often critical to successful treatment. Surgeons often remove part of the organ after an early diagnosis.
Early Detection is Key
Chronic conditions of the pancreas affect your life in many ways. From unresolved pain caused by inflammation of the pancreas to flu-like symptoms that don’t subside, pancreatic diseases often interrupt your day to day and interfere with your plans.
Prevention of common pancreatic diseases is essential to your health and well-being. Early diagnosis can lead to treatment and correct many disorders, including diseases of the pancreas.
Additionally, genetic testing can help care teams diagnose diseases and identify causes — which usually leads to highly personalized and more effective treatment plans.