The pancreas is called the "hidden organ" because it is located deep in the abdomen behind the stomach. About six to eight inches long in the adult, the organ contains thin tubes that come together like the veins of a leaf. These tubes join to form a single opening into the intestine that is located just beyond the stomach.
The pancreas produces juices and enzymes that flow through these tubes into the intestine, where they mix with food. The enzymes digest fat, protein, and carbohydrates so they can be absorbed by the intestine. Pancreatic juices, therefore, play an important role in maintaining good health. The pancreas also produces insulin, which is picked up by the blood flowing through the organ. Insulin is important in regulating the amount of sugar or glucose in the bloo
What Are the Diseases of the Pancreas?
- Diabetes mellitus
- Acute pancreatitis
- Chronic pancreatitis
- Pancreatic enzyme deficiency
- Pancreas tumor
Many cases of diabetes are caused by a deficiency of insulin. Insulin is needed to help glucose, which is a major source of energy, enter the body's cells. It is not known why insulin-producing cells in the pancreas die off. When they cease to function, glucose accumulates in the blood and eventually spills into the urine. These patients require daily insulin injections. More importantly, high blood glucose levels, over time, result in significant changes in blood vessels in the eyes, kidneys, heart, legs, and nerves. Damage to these vital organs represents the major risk for patients with diabetes.
Other patients who develop diabetes later in life seem to have sufficient insulin in the pancreas, but for some unknown reason it is not available for the body's use. These patients typically are overweight; therefore, weight loss is critical for them. In addition, oral medications can be taken that help release insulin from the pancreas. All diabetics need to maintain normal or near-normal blood glucose levels to prevent or delay the complications of this disease.
This condition occurs when the pancreas becomes quickly and severely inflamed. The major causes are:
- Heavy alcohol ingestion
- Gallstones or gallbladder disease
- High blood fats (triglycerides)
- Unknown factors
Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment
The main symptoms of pancreatitis are acute, severe pain in the upper abdomen, frequently accompanied by vomiting and fever. The abdomen is tender, and the patient feels and looks ill. The diagnosis is made by measuring the blood pancreas enzymes which are elevated. A sound wave test (ultrasound) or abdominal CT exam often shows an enlarged pancreas. The condition is treated by resting the pancreas while the tissues heal. This is accomplished through bowel rest, hospitalization, intravenous feeding and pain medications.
The pancreas, like most organs of the body, can develop tumors. Some of these are benign and cause no problems. Some benign tumors can secrete hormones which, when present in high levels, have a detrimental effect. For example, insulin can be secreted in excessive amounts and result in dangerously low blood sugar levels (hypoglycemia). Another hormone, gastrin, can stimulate the stomach to secrete its strong hydrochloric acid causing recurrent stomach and peptic ulcers, with many complications. Fortunately, there is much that can be done about these tumors.
Cancer of the pancreas is a serious malignancy that is difficult to treat. The disorder occurs in middle or older-aged people, with the first symptom often being dull pain in the upper abdomen that may radiate into the back. At times, skin jaundice occurs when the bile duct, which carries yellow bile from the liver and through the pancreas, is blocked. Surgery is the only effective form of treatment for pancreas cancer.
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