The pancreas is a gland that has many functions. For instance, it secretes enzymes to help with digestion. It also produces insulin, a hormone necessary for glucose metabolism. A pancreatic disease can, therefore, cause different symptoms, depending on which pancreatic cells are affected.
In pancreatitis, inflammation causes the pancreas’ digestive enzymes to break down the organ’s own tissues (a process called autodigestion). Repeated attacks can lead to a more chronic disease that causes permanent changes in pancreatic architecture. But regardless of its chronicity, pancreatitis is best detected early on.
Acute versus chronic pancreatitis
When inflammation of the pancreas brings about immediate but temporary changes, pancreatitis is defined as acute. If these inflammatory changes tend to recur, the pancreas can manifest permanent functional impairment, eventually leading to loss of normal pancreatic tissue. These repeated attacks can cause irreversible damage and are characteristic of chronic pancreatitis. The varied and complex progression of pancreatitis has been mentioned by Whitcomb and colleagues in a 2008 study published at Pancreatology. Both forms of pancreatitis show signs and symptoms of an acute disease.
Many cases of acute pancreatitis are caused by chronic alcoholism (or binge drinking) and biliary tract disease. At least 35 percent of pancreatitis cases are caused by alcoholism, as reported by Whitcomb and associates (2008). However, in up to a third of patients, the cause is not identified.
Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), a procedure that allows a small camera into the biliary tree, is reportedly the third most common cause of pancreatitis. Other causes include abdominal trauma (especially from bullet or knife wounds penetrating the pancreas), certain drugs, infection, high calcium levels, abnormal pancreatic development, high cholesterol, obstructive tumors, toxin exposure (such as a snake or scorpion venom), or an inherited tendency for pancreatic inflammation.