Digestive System Home > Pancreatitis

The pancreas is a large gland behind the stomach that secretes digestive enzymes into the small intestine. When the pancreas becomes inflamed, it's known as pancreatitis. While there are many possible causes of this condition, the most common are alcoholism and gallstones. Symptoms may include a swollen and tender abdomen, pain in the upper abdomen, nausea, fever, and rapid pulse.

What Is Pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas. It is estimated to affect 50,000 to 80,000 people a year in the United States.

Understanding the Pancreas

The pancreas is a large gland behind the stomach and close to the duodenum, the upper part of the small intestine. The pancreas secretes digestive enzymes (lipase, protease, and amylase) into the small intestine through a tube called the pancreatic duct. These enzymes help digest fats, proteins, and carbohydrates in food. The pancreas also releases the hormones insulin and glucagon into the bloodstream. These hormones help the body use the glucose it takes from food for energy.
Normally, digestive enzymes do not become active until they reach the small intestine, where they begin digesting food; however, if these enzymes become active inside the pancreas, they start "digesting" the pancreas itself.

Types of Pancreatitis

There are two types of pancreatitis:
  • Acute
  • Chronic.
The acute form occurs suddenly, lasts for a short period of time, and usually resolves on its own. The chronic form does not resolve itself and results in a slow destruction of the pancreas.
Either type can cause serious complications. In severe cases, bleeding, tissue damage, and infection may occur. Pseudocysts (accumulations of fluid and tissue debris) may also develop. In addition, enzymes and toxins may enter the bloodstream, injuring the heart, lungs, and kidneys, or other organs.
Written by/reviewed by:
Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
Last updated/reviewed:
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