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Pancreas – functions and its diseases

Function in health: 

The pancreas has two major functions in the body. 

One is produce digestive enzymes that help in breaking down food into simple substances that can later on be absorbed easily by the intestines. These enzymes become activated once the food is ingested. It helps to digest carbohydrates, proteins and fat. This function is most important for the digestion of fat.

The other function is to regulate glucose by producing hormones like insulin. It also produces hormone – glucagon, which works with insulin to regulate the glucose levels.

Diseases of the pancreas:

Acute pancreatitis:

It results due to injury to the pancreas, resulting into the release and activation of the powerful digestive enzymes in the pancreas itself and also into the circulation. This leads to strong inflammation and edema of the pancreas and fluid accumulates in the abdomen. It is a medical emergency. It causes a sudden onset of severe abdominal pain, often with lot of vomiting. Very severe cases can be life threatening too. Most mild cases recover very well. The usual causes of acute pancreatitis are alcohol, gallstones (stones within the gall bladder), adverse reaction to certain medications, direct abdominal trauma, very high triglycerides, infections, high calcium levels and other miscellaneous causes.

Chronic pancreatitis:

It is the result of long standing damage to the pancreas leading to loss of its function. Loss of digestive function leads to patients passing oil in stools, which is known as steatorrhea. Weight loss and pain in abdomen after taking meals is also common. Loss of insulin secretion leads to diabetes (high sugar levels). The long standing damage also manifests as stones within the pancreas. The risk factors are alcohol, smoking, genetic diseases and a variety of other causes. The treatment is usually to replacing the digestive enzymes known as lipase. Some patients may require surgery.

Tumors in pancreas:

Tumors are of two types: cancerous and non cancerous. 

Cancers of the pancreas can result in abdominal pain, weight loss, jaundice, itching and vomiting. It is diagnosed by a CT scan or MRI. Confirmation of the diagnosis requires a biopsy by endoscopic ultrasound. It is treated by surgery or chemotherapy or a combination of the above.

Non cancerous tumors can be left alone and observed at regular intervals.

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