Although you may not know much about your pancreas, this gland plays an important role in digestion. Located between your stomach and spine, the pancreas is a major digestive organ. If your pancreas is working properly, you won't even give this organ a thought. However, problems with your pancreas can be severe or even fatal. In rare cases, you could live without a pancreas.
The main roles of the pancreas are to produce enzymes and hormones. The pancreas releases digestive enzymes when food enters the small intestines. These enzymes join with bile, a liquid manufactured in the liver, to digest food. The pancreas has three types of enzymes to help to break down protein, fat or carbohydrates. Another important role of the pancreas is to produce the hormone, insulin. Insulin controls the amount of glucose in your bloodstream. The pancreas also creates other hormones, including glucagon.
Pancreatitis is the most common disease of the pancreas. Pancreatitis causes the pancreas to become inflamed and release digestive enzymes in the bloodstream. Symptoms of pancreatitis include pain, fever, shortness of breath and kidney problems. Pancreatitis can be acute or chronic if the condition recurs. Pancreatic cancer is the most lethal of all cancers, but it isn’t very common. In many cases, patients do not notice symptoms until the cancer has progressed to later and less curable stages.
Depending on your pancreatic disease, various treatment options exist. Your doctor may remove parts of your pancreas, especially in cases of chronic pancreatitis or if you have tumors on your pancreas. In rare cases, your doctor may decide to do total pancreatectomy to remove your entire pancreas. Along with the pancreas, this surgery removes the spleen, gall bladder, portions of the intestines and stomach. Because of the side effects, this surgery is only done when there are no other options.
Because your pancreas is critical in digestion, you will have to take medications daily if you do not have this organ. Without a pancreas, you will need to take the digestive enzymes that your pancreas would normally produce. Although you can find these enzymes over the counter, you should take prescription enzymes so that you can get the proper dose and quality. Your doctor will prescribe digestive enzymes, which come from a pig source, for you to take with every meal or snack that contains fats.
- John Hopkins Medicine: What is the Pancreas?
- Cedars-Sinai: Frequently Asked Questions About Pancreatic and Biliary Diseases
- National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse: Pancreatitis
- American Cancer Society: Pancreatic Cancer Surgery
- Georgetown University Hospital: Total Pancreatectomy
- Pancreatic Cancer Action Network: Pancreatic Enzymes
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