What is Pancreas?
The pancreas is an important organ/ gland in our body, which is situated in the abdomen. Pancreas is a part of the digestive system and helps in producing important hormones and enzymes, which break down our food for easy digestion. The pancreas has both endocrine and exocrine function, as it secretes the juices directly into the blood along with secreting juices into the ducts. The digestive juices or the enzymes which are produced by the pancreas are released into the small intestine to help in further breaking down of the food after it has left the stomach. Pancreas is also responsible for producing insulin through its beta cells. Insulin is a hormone which helps in regulating the body's sugar level or glucose.
The pancreas is about 18 to 25 cm (6 to 10 inch) in length and has a spongy texture. The pancreas lies horizontally across the abdomen. The largest part of the pancreas is its head. The body or the tail of the pancreas is the narrowest part and lies towards the left side of the abdomen beside the spleen.
Pancreas has two main types of tissue: endocrine tissue and exocrine tissue. About 95% of the pancreas is composed of exocrine tissue, which produces pancreatic enzymes, which help with the digestion. A healthy pancreas can produce around 1 liter of digestive enzymes daily. The rest of the pancreas is made up of islets of Langerhans, which are the endocrine cells.
There are many reasons where a person can have pancreatic pain such as pancreatitis, which is the acute or chronic inflammation of the pancreas. Pancreatic pain can also develop due to cancer in the pancreas. It is important to follow a balanced diet, exercise and avoid smoking and alcohol to maintain healthy pancreas.
What is the Function of Pancreas?
As mentioned before, the function of the pancreas is to produce hormones and enzymes which aids in our digestion. A function of the healthy pancreas is its ability to produce the right enzymes in the right quantity and at the right time for properly digesting the food. As the food enters the duodenum, the exocrine tissues of the pancreas produces a watery, clear alkaline juice which has various enzymes which help in breaking down the food into small molecules, which helps with the absorption by the intestines. The enzymes of pancreas, which are responsible for this include:
- Chymotrypsin and trypsin help in digesting the proteins.
- Lipase helps in breaking down the fats present in the fatty acids and cholesterol.
- Amylase helps in breaking down of the carbohydrates.
The islets of Langerhans is the endocrine portion of the pancreas, which is made up of thousands of cells, which secrete hormones directly into our bloodstream. One of such hormones includes the insulin, which is secreted by the pancreatic beta cells in response to elevated blood sugar. Insulin also helps in transporting glucose from the blood into the muscles and other tissues so it can be used for energy. Insulin also helps the liver in absorbing the glucose and storing it as glycogen for emergencies when the body needs a spurt of energy during exercise or stress.
The pancreatic alpha cells secrete a hormone known as Glucagon in response to decrease in the blood sugar. The primary function of Glucagon is breaking down the glycogen into glucose in the liver. The glucose then enters the bloodstream to restore the blood sugar level back to normal.
Common Causes of Pancreatic Pain
Pancreatic pain can be a symptom of different types of pancreatic diseases. Depending on the cause of the pancreatic pain patients can have varying degrees of pain along with other symptoms. Some of the common causes of pancreatic pain include:
- Chronic pancreatitis is a condition where there is prolonged or recurrent inflammation of the pancreas. Patient experiences recurrent or persistent dull to moderate pain in the region of the upper abdomen. Patient does not have pain and serious symptoms which are associated with acute pancreatitis. Chronic pancreatitis commonly occurs in alcoholics and chronic binge drinkers.
- A diagnosis of chronic pancreatitis can be made by testing the level of blood enzymes, investigations such as x-rays, ultrasound, abdominal CT scan and ERCP endoscopic test.
- Treatment for pancreatic pain caused due to chronic pancreatitis comprises of making lifestyle changes, such as quitting alcohol and following a healthy diet. As the alcohol gradually flushes out of the system, the pancreatic pain from chronic pancreatitis also subsides. Rest is also important and pain medications are also prescribed for stubborn pancreatic pain.
- This is a condition where there is severe and rapid inflammation of the pancreas. Symptoms of acute pancreatitis include abdominal tenderness with severe pain in the upper abdominal area. Along with pancreatic pain, other symptoms commonly seen in this condition include high fever and vomiting.
- The common cause for pancreatic pain due to acute pancreatitis is excessive alcohol consumption or binge drinking. Other than this, gall bladder disease or gallstones can also cause acute pancreatitis. Trauma to the pancreas, some medicines, hereditary factors, increased levels of triglycerides in the blood can also cause acute pancreatitis, which further causes pancreatic pain. There are some cases where the cause of acute pancreatitis is not known.
- The diagnosis of acute pancreatitis as being responsible for pancreatic pain can be made with the help of some investigations such as ultrasound scan or CT scan.
- Treatment for acute pancreatitis depends on the cause and the severity of acute pancreatitis. Rest is important to allow the pancreatic tissues to heal. Medications for pancreatic pain can be prescribed to relieve the pain. Hospitalization and intravenous feeding is usually required. If the cause of acute pancreatitis is gallstones or gallbladder disease, then surgery may be done to remove it.
- Pancreatic cancer or tumors may also cause pancreatic pain. There are many pancreatic tumors, which are benign and may only cause peptic ulcers or hypoglycemia. However, in some cases, they can be malignant and cause severe symptoms and pain in the pancreas.
- Symptoms of pancreatic cancer comprise of dull, radiating pain in the upper abdomen along with yellowing jaundice.
- Pancreatic cancer is a serious medical condition and needs immediate medical treatment. Middle aged and older individuals are at an increased risk for having pancreatic cancer.
- Treatment comprises of surgery to remove the pancreatic tumors from the body, followed by chemotherapy and radiation.