Pancreatitis is the medical term for inflammation of the pancreas, an organ near the stomach and liver that secretes several different substances required for the effective processing of food and certain liquids. Some people develop a temporary form of this inflammation called acute pancreatitis, while others develop an ongoing form of inflammation called chronic pancreatitis. The level of alcohol intake associated with alcoholism can trigger the onset of either one of these conditions. Chronic pancreatitis in alcoholics and other affected individuals can potentially contribute to the development of highly lethal pancreatic cancer.
The pancreas is a type of organ known as a gland; it connects to the small intestine and sits behind the stomach in close proximity to the spleen and liver. Two vital types of substances come from the pancreas: digestive enzymes and a group of three hormones called insulin, glucagon and somatostatin. Digestive enzymes from the organ flow out into the small intestine and help break down proteins, fats and carbohydrates that pass through the stomach. Insulin encourages the movement of the carbohydrate breakdown product glucose from the bloodstream into individual cells throughout the body; it gets released after meals when blood glucose levels typically reach their peak. Glucagon acts in a more or less opposite manner and encourages glucose production in the body when supplies of this vital substance run low. Somatostatin helps control the release of both insulin and glucagon.
Under normal circumstances the digestive enzymes produced inside the pancreas only enter an active state after they leave the organ and pass into the small intestine. Pancreatitis occurs when these enzymes activate prematurely inside the pancreas and start to eat away at the pancreatic tissue. It is the abnormal activity of these enzymes that creates the characteristic inflammation associated with the disorder.
Acute forms of pancreatitis arise abruptly and trigger either immediately significant or gradually increasing pain in the upper abdominal region. Additional potential symptoms of this form of the disorder include fever, an accelerated heart rate, nausea, vomiting, and tenderness or swelling in the upper abdominal tissue. In most cases, pain and all other symptoms of the disorder fade within a few days. However, in some cases, symptoms of the disorder worsen, and the affected individual may also develop abnormally low blood pressure and/or medically serious dehydration. Potential consequences of untreated, severe acute pancreatitis include kidney failure, heart failure, lung failure, shock, and death.
Chronic pancreatitis produces ongoing, permanent pancreas damage that gets steadily worse with the passage of time. While the majority of people with this form of the disorder experience serious pain, some do not. In addition to the possible appearance of pancreatic cancer, potential long-term consequences of chronic pancreatic inflammation include destructive hardening of the pancreatic tissue and the onset of the blood glucose control disorder called diabetes.
Alcohol triggers the onset of pancreatitis by encouraging the premature activation of the pancreas’s digestive enzymes. In addition, the presence of an alcohol breakdown product, called acetaldehyde, also damages the pancreas and contributes to inflammation within the organ. Typically, it takes a considerable amount of time (i.e., a year or longer) before heavy consumption of alcohol harms the pancreas enough to trigger the onset of pancreatitis. As a rule, alcoholics first develop isolated bouts of acute inflammation. If heavy drinking continues, these acute attacks of pancreatitis can become chronic.
Pancreatitis is relatively rare among both alcoholics and the general population. According to a 2009 study review by researchers at Australia’s University of New South Wales, only roughly 5 percent of all alcoholics develop the disorder. Some scientists believe that alcoholics who smoke have higher chances of developing pancreatitis than alcoholics who don’t smoke. In addition, alcoholic smokers with pancreatitis may experience an unusually rapid progression of their symptoms. However, not all researchers agree with these conclusions. Most researchers do agree that alcoholic smokers with pancreatitis have higher-than-average risks for dying from various forms of cardiovascular disease and cancers in the lungs or digestive tract.
Odds of Recovery
Alcoholics who quit drinking and adopt balanced, low-fat diets have a fairly good chance of reducing or stopping the recurrence of acute pancreatitis attacks. These same actions can help prevent the progression of acute pancreatitis into chronic pancreatitis. Once chronic pancreatitis sets in, its effects are permanent and irreversible, even in alcoholics who abstain from drinking. Typically, people with this form of the disorder require ongoing use of medications to manage their blood glucose levels and properly digest the foods they eat. Alcoholics with chronic pancreatitis who continue drinking will experience a virtually inevitable worsening of their condition.