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Pancreas Diseases

Pancreas diseases are any condition that affect the pancreas enough that it can’t function correctly. Because the pancreas is critical for vital body functions, conditions that cause your pancreas to stop working properly can have a serious impact on your health.

At The University of Kansas Health System, we offer leading-edge diagnosis and treatment options for all types of pancreas diseases, including those conditions that may require a pancreas transplant. Together, we’ll work with you to assess your condition and decide the best treatment options to move forward.

What is pancreas disease?

The pancreas is an organ that’s located behind the stomach and is responsible for 2 main jobs: creating enzymes that help digest food and creating insulin to help manage blood sugar. Pancreas disease is a general term that can refer to any condition that causes the pancreas to stop working correctly. This includes injury or trauma to the pancreas, as well as inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis) and pancreatic cancer.

In some cases, a different health condition is severe enough to affect pancreatic function. For example, the most common cause of pancreatitis in adults is having gallstones. Lifestyle factors can also play a role in pancreatic disease. Research suggests a link between heavy alcohol use and pancreatitis.

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Types of pancreas disease

There are several conditions that could cause your pancreas to fail:

  • Cystic fibrosis is an inherited disorder that causes the mucous throughout the body to become thick and sticky. It affects the lungs, liver, intestines and pancreas. The mucous also can block ducts in your pancreas, preventing the digestive enzymes from reaching your small intestine.

  • The most common disorder of the pancreas is diabetes, which affects the endocrine system. Type 1 diabetes is the most common reason to need a pancreas transplant.

  • Tumors can form in both the exocrine and endocrine parts of the pancreas. Pancreatic cancer is very serious because it’s difficult to detect and resists treatment.

  • The pancreas can become inflamed when digestive enzymes, which are contained in tubes within the pancreas, leak to the rest of the pancreas and irritate it. Pancreatitis can be acute (short term) or chronic (long term).

  • Crushing or piercing injuries can damage any internal organ, including the pancreas. Because the pancreas is protected within the abdomen, this type of failure is rare.

Pancreas disease symptoms and risks

The symptoms of pancreas disease will vary depending on the exact type of condition you have. Because the pancreas plays more than one role, there’s a wide range of possible symptoms:

  • Abdominal pain, swelling or tenderness
  • Excessive gas
  • Fever
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
  • Loss of appetite, nausea or vomiting
  • Malnutrition
  • Pain that’s not helped by medication
  • Rapid pulse
  • Stool irregularities, like diarrhea, oily stools, foul-smelling stool or stool that’s light-colored
  • Weight loss

The risks of pancreatic disease increase with:

  • Abdominal injury, including surgery
  • Alcoholism
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Diabetes
  • Diet high in fatty foods
  • Family history of pancreatitis or pancreatic cancer
  • Gallstones, including endoscopic surgery for gallstone treatment
  • Infection
  • Obesity
  • Smoking

Pancreas disease diagnosis and screening

Initial diagnosis of pancreas disease starts with a full physical examination and medical history. If your doctor suspects pancreas disease, you will need additional tests to check the function and structure of your pancreas, such as:

  • Blood tests, stool tests or other outpatient lab tests
  • CT scan or ultrasound to check for gallstones, inflammation and blockages
  • MRI to check for abnormalities in the pancreas, pancreatic ducts and gallbladder

Evaluating pancreas function can be challenging. In some cases, exploratory surgery may be required to confirm a precise cause for your pancreas disease symptoms.

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Pancreas disease treatment

The best treatment for pancreatic disease will depend on your specific diagnosis. Different treatment options can include:

  • Dietary changes, like reducing the amount of fat in your diet
  • Digestive enzymes to ensure that your body can effectively digest food and absorb needed nutrients
  • Pain management, especially for chronic pancreas disease
  • Pancreas transplant surgery
  • Surgery to remove all or part of the pancreas
  • Surgery to remove obstructions, gallstones or the gallbladder
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