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When the pancreas becomes inflamed, a serious medical condition known as pancreatitis occurs. Although there are mild cases, medical treatment is necessary, because the condition can be life-threatening. Unfortunately, because so many of the symptoms mirror symptoms of other gastro-intestinal conditions, pancreatitis often goes misdiagnosed.

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In order to understand the severity of pancreatitis, it’s important to understand the vital role that the pancreas plays in the digestive system. The pancreas is located in the upper part of the abdomen. It is a gland which plays two major roles: aiding in digestion and releasing hormones which control storage and use of food. Part of this process involves releasing enzymes to process carbohydrates and proteins in the small intestine. The pancreas releases those enzymes before they are needed. As a result, instead of breaking down carbohydrates and proteins, the pancreas attacks itself.

Types of Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis comes in two types: acute and chronic. The acute form can result as a secondary condition caused by gallstones or as a result of heavy consumption of alcohol. This type of pancreatitis typically occurs abruptly, without any prior warning and can last for days.

Symptoms of Pancreatitis

The symptoms of acute pancreatitis include, but are not limited to:

  • Swelling, tenderness and pain in the upper abdomen.
  • Fever and the accompanying headache
  • Vomiting or nausea

Chronic pancreatitis, a condition in which pancreatitis reoccurs over several years, shares many of those symptoms. But individuals with the chronic form of the disease may also develop diabetes and suffer from weight loss. The weight loss comes from the body’s inability to properly absorb the food that the pancreas should be helping to digest.

Chronic Pancreatitis

The chronic form of pancreatitis has two primary causes. People with the condition typically have a history of prolonged and heavy alcohol use. Others may have chronic pancreatitis because they have never had their acute case of pancreatitis treated properly. This is why, although some mild cases of acute pancreatitis may subside by themselves, it is important to have a medical professional treat each case.

Medical Misdiagnosis

Unfortunately, many medical professionals may misdiagnose pancreatitis, because the symptoms share similarities with other diseases of the digestive system. Commonly, pancreatitis is mistaken for one of the following conditions:

  • Ulcers
  • Gastroenteritis
  • Irritable bowel syndrome

Pancreatitis that is not diagnosed in time allows the pancreas to keep attacking itself, and this can lead to organ damage of the pancreas, heart, kidneys and lungs.

Fortunately, obtaining a diagnosis of pancreatitis is simple. Doctors need to take a blood test to determine the number of enzymes in the patient’s digestive system. High numbers will lead them towards the correct diagnosis.