Pancreas Problems – Types, Causes, Symptoms of Pancreatic Diseases

Like any part of the body, a host of problems can arise with the pancreas. These disorders and diseases can affect the function of the pancreas. It causes various symptoms which may range from mild to severe. Pancreas problems can even lead to life-threatening consequences and should always be taken seriously.

The pancreas is a gland. This means that it produces and secretes hormones. It is a very versatile organ and also produces and secretes enzymes. The pancreas plays important roles in digestion, absorption and metabolism of nutrients. It is located in the upper middle part of the abdominal cavity.

It has both endocrine and exocrine functions. The endocrine functions refer to the hormones that the pancreas produces and secretes into the bloodstream. The exocrine function refers to the digestive enzymes that the pancreas produces and secretes into the duodenum (first part of the small intestine).

Symptoms of Pancreas Problems

Pancreas problems affects the functions of the pancreas. Therefore symptoms that arise are usually related to pancreas dysfunction. Various diseases that may affect the pancreas produces a range of symptoms, both local and generalized. Some of the symptoms of pancreas problems include :

  • Hyperglycemia or hypoglycemia – abnormally high or low blood glucose levels
  • Steatorrhea – fat in the stool
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Abdominal pain (with/without back pain)
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Jaundice
  • Malaise and weakness
  • Diarrhea

The signs and symptoms vary according to each pancreatic disease and depends on the severity of the condition. Problems with the pancreas may progress and lead to a number of complications affecting other organs, especially the gallbladder, liver and bile ducts, and other systems, particularly those involved with digestion and metabolism.

Causes of Pancreas Problems

Pancreas problems can affect any person of any age and gender but it tends to be more common among adult males. From injury and infections to excessive alcohol consumption, there is a wide variety of causes for pancreas problems.

Acute and Chronic Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis is the medical term for inflammation of the pancreas. The severity and duration can vary, thereby giving rise to acute or chronic pancreatitis. One of the most common causes of pancreatitis is alcohol overuse and abuse. It may lead to death of the pancreatic tissue, abscess formation or pseudocysts. Chronic pancreatitis may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.

Acute pancreatitis occurs when the pancreatic enzymes are prematurely activated while inside the gland. This begins to digest the pancreatic tissue leading to damage that is often reversible if treated promptly. Common causes of acute pancreatitis includes gallstones, alcohol abuse, following procedures like and ERCP and other unknown factors.

Chronic pancreatitis is an inflammatory condition of the pancreas where persistent or recurrent inflammation leads to destruction of the pancreas tissue. Common causes include recurrence of the same causes of acute pancreatitis. Alcohol misuse is by far the most common cause while malnutrition, infections, congenital abnormalities, autoimmune factors and diseases of other organs/systems (secondary) are also responsible.

Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer is among the ten most common types of cancers in adults. Like any cancer, it arises when cells in the pancreas become abnormal and divide rapidly. These abnormal cancer cells destroy the normal healthy cells. Sometimes cancer may spread to the pancreas from other parts of the body, which is known as secondary or metastatic cancer.

The most common type of pancreatic cancer is ductal adenocarcinoma, which as the name suggests, starts in the pancreatic ducts. Other carcinomas of the pancreas include acinar cell carcinoma and pancreatoblastoma. These are primary cancers which start in the pancreas and arise from different pancreatic cells.

Pancreatic carcinoma has one of the highest mortality rates of any cancer and is among the more common type of cancer. It is more commonly seen in men and is associated with age, smoking and chronic pancreatitis. Hereditary factors and genetic alterations may also play a role in the formation of pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic Cysts

Pancreatic cysts are enclosed sacs within the pancreatic tissue. It may be filled with fluid and/or solid material There are three different types of pancreatic cysts.

  • Pseudocysts are the more common type of pancreatic cysts. These non-cancerous cysts are filled with dead tissue material caused by pancreatitis or trauma to the abdomen.
  • Congenital cysts are another type of non-cancerous cyst filled with a clear serous fluid. It is often associated with polycystic diseases and cysts may be found in many other organs simultaneously, including the liver and kidney.
  • Neoplastic cysts are usually benign (non-cancerous), but some like a mucinous cystic neoplasms are malignant. Genetic factors may also be responsible for cyst formation.

Congenital Pancreatic Abnormalities

Some pancreas problems are present from birth. These abnormalities usually occur as a result of disruption in fetal development.

  • Pancreas divisum
  • Annular pancreas
  • Ectopic pancreas
  • Agenesis (rare)

Pancreatic Exocrine Insufficiency

Pancreatic exocrine insufficiency is where there is a deficiency of digestive enzymes that are produced and secreted by the pancreas (exocrine function). The hormone function of the pancreas (endocrine function) is usually unaffected. Pancreatic exocrine insufficiency is not a disease on its own but a condition caused by various pancreatic diseases such as pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer.

Sometimes exocrine insufficiency can occur even when the pancreas is healthy. Instead the pancreatic enzymes cannot be released into the small intestine due to obstruction of the duct through which it passes, as may occur with gallstones. The deficiency of these pancreatic enzymes affects the digestion of food and absorption of nutrients.

Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes mellitus is where the pancreas cannot produce insulin. This occurs when the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas are damaged and destroyed by the action of the body’s immune system. This type of diabetes is also known as juvenile diabetes or insulin–dependent diabetes mellitus.

The exact reason why the immune system attacks the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas is not clearly understood. It appears that genetics, certain viral infections or environmental factors triggers this abnormal action of the immune system. Thereafter the pancreas produces little to no insulin. It is an irreversible condition and insulin administration is required.

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