Your pancreas is a vital yet often overlooked organ. It does not get the same recognition as your liver, kidneys, or even bladder, yet it serves functions that are just as important. Without the enzymes produced by your pancreas, digesting food would be difficult or even impossible. Without the insulin created by the pancreas, you would not be able to control your blood sugar.
Because of the pancreas’ importance, any reduction in function can be detrimental to your health. Pancreatitis is one such condition, and it can be both painful and debilitating. If left untreated, it can be deadly.
What Is Pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis is defined as an inflammation of the pancreas. It usually begins suddenly, with little to no warning. This is called acute pancreatitis, or short-term pancreatitis. The condition can be very painful and may include a wide range of conditions that reduce your quality of life, including fever and vomiting. In some cases, acute pancreatitis will resolve itself (with or without treatment). However, in other cases, it will slowly progress, becoming what’s called chronic pancreatitis.
In this situation, your health situation becomes more tenuous. The enzymes that your pancreas produces for digestion stop flowing. Not only does that lead to digestive trouble, but it causes a backup within the pancreas itself. The enzymes cause pain and the buildup leads to scarring. If the buildup lasts too long, the enzymes will eventually destroy the pancreas.
Not infrequently narcotic (opioid) medications are used to control pain caused by pancreatitis. This is an unfortunate treatment as chronic use of opioids causes spasm and dryness of the pancreatic ducts which, in turn, compromises pancreatic drainage and increases inflammation, promoting more pain. Giving more pain medication for the increased pain causes more damage to the pancreas creating a vicious cycle of the disease.
What Are the Symptoms of Pancreatitis?
While all patients with pancreatitis will suffer from a number of different symptoms, those will vary depending on the severity of the condition and whether you have acute or chronic pancreatitis. For instance, acute pancreatitis usually presents with pain in the upper abdomen that sometimes radiates to your back, as well as feeling worse after you eat. You may have a fever, and you may feel that your pulse is racing. You may vomit, and the abdomen may feel tender to the touch.
In contrast, those suffering from chronic pancreatitis may notice upper abdominal pain and unintentional weight loss. Oily stools that smell very bad are another sign that you have chronic pancreatitis.
Even with treatment, pancreatitis can lead to a number of complications. Infection is one of the most common, as is malnutrition as your body is unable to absorb the nutrients it needs from food. Diabetes can result, as can kidney failure, breathing problems, and even pancreatic cancer.
What Causes Pancreatitis?
The actual cause of pancreatitis is activation of digestive enzymes while they are still in the pancreas. This causes irritation, damage, and then scarring. Repeated instances of acute pancreatitis usually lead to chronic pancreatitis due to the formation of scar tissue and a corresponding reduction in pancreas function.
There are numerous reasons for the premature activation of digestive enzymes. One of the most common causes is the presence of gallstones in the gallbladder. However, alcoholism is another common cause. Some medications can cause this, as can smoking cigarettes. Those with a family history of pancreatitis are at a higher risk, as are those with cystic fibrosis. Pancreatic cancer can also cause these symptoms, as can high blood calcium levels or high triglyceride levels.
What Are the Current Treatment Methods for Pancreatitis?
For most patients, the first step toward treatment is a trip to the hospital to deal with the abdominal pain and other symptoms. Your doctor will likely provide you with pain medication and fluids via an IV drip. You will also be required to stop eating for a couple of days. This gives your pancreas a chance to rest and begin healing.
After your symptoms are under control, your doctor may recommend a number of different treatments depending on your specific situation. You may need bile duct obstructions removed, or you could require gallbladder surgery. If you struggle with alcoholism, you may need treatment for dependence. In some situations, pancreas surgery may be necessary to drain fluid and to remove dying or scar tissue.
Pain management will be necessary for those with chronic pancreatitis, and it may be necessary to take digestive enzyme supplements and make changes to your diet.
Who Is at Risk for Pancreatitis?
Those most at risk for developing pancreatitis – either acute or (eventually) chronic – are smokers and heavy drinkers. If you have uncontrolled triglyceride levels, diabetes, cystic fibrosis, high blood calcium levels or take specific medications, you may also be at an increased risk for this disease.
How Might Stem Cell Therapy Help Treat Pancreatitis?
Stem cells are the building blocks of all types of body tissues, from blood vessels to bones to organs. They are present in the body from initial formation in the womb until death, although they do suffer from reduced function as the body ages. These cells are being heavily studied for their healing and regenerative capabilities, including for patients with chronic pancreatitis.
In a study published in the journal Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, the authors reviewed a wide range of clinical studies involving mesenchymal stem cells used to treat induced acute and chronic pancreatitis in test animals. The authors noted,
“Three studies investigated the effect of umbilical cord-derived mesenchymal stem cells (UCMSCs) on severe acute pancreatitis. The UCMSC injection reduced pancreatic tissue damage in all 3 studies. Necrosis, inflammation, and oedema were ameliorated, and the levels of serum amylase and lipase were decreased.
Similarly, in these same studies, the UCMSCs reduced the serum levels of proinflammatory cytokines (TNF-α, IFN-γ, IL-1β, and IL-6) and increased the levels of anti-inflammatory cytokines (IL-4 and IL-10). Of the three studies that administered UCMSCs as therapy for severe acute pancreatitis, only one reported the mortality rate after the administration of UCMSCs and showed that the infusion decreased mortality after the induction of severe acute pancreatitis.”
Another study, this one published in the Journal of Gastroenterology in early 2018, found that while there have been no human trials to test the effectiveness of mesenchymal stem cell therapy for either acute pancreatitis or chronic pancreatitis, further testing is definitely warranted and that significant benefits could be obtained for patients.
Stem cell therapy shows immense promise for treating both acute and chronic pancreatitis. However, as yet, there is no FDA-approved application for stem cells in the US. Further study is required and any existing treatment should be considered experimental.