Common Diseases of the Pancreas and Biliary Tract

The pancreas is an important organ in your body that, amongst other tasks, is responsible for making hormones, enzymes, and juices that help to break down food for digestion. When it becomes inflamed or swollen and causes severe abdominal pain, it is called pancreatitis.

Pancreatitis can occur due to many reasons, but the two most common causes include gallstones and alcohol abuse. Gallstones can come out of the gallbladder and cause a blockage of flow of the pancreatic juices, which lead to irritation of the pancreas and ultimately severe pain. Alcohol abuse and smoking can also lead to the development of pancreatitis. The diagnosis is of this condition is made with the use of a combination the history of illness, physical exam findings, blood work, and occasionally imaging. The treatment of pancreatitis is individualized to each patient and the severity of illness, but most commonly, patients are treated with intravenous fluids and pain medications. Initially, nothing is given by mouth to eat, but eating is encouraged as pain is improving. Occasionally, nutrition is provided with the help of a feeding tube. The majority of cases improve in a week or so, but some cases can be quite severe. A number of complications can occur after a case of pancreatitis and they are managed by your doctors as they occur. At Great Lakes Gastroenterology, we take an individualized approach to each case and your care is provided specific to your needs.

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The gallbladder is a small pear-shaped organ that is found underneath your liver. Is main purpose is to store bile, which is a substance produced by your liver to help the body break down fat. When a meal is consumed, the gallbladder squeezes and releases the bile into the intestine to help digest the meal.  Within the gallbladder, in some people, stones can form. There are numerous risk factors for the development of gallstones and some include obesity, rapid weight loss, prior family history, diabetes mellitus, cirrhosis of the liver, an age greater than 40, female gender, prior pregnancies, and oral oral contraceptive use, to name a few. Most of the time patients with gallstones have no symptoms. When the stones start to cause blockages in the tubing system of the gallbladder and flow of bile, patients can develop fevers, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and occasionally jaundice. Generally, if the stones are small and if you have no symptoms, there is no need for any type of specific treatment, but if the stones are large or if there is an infection of your gallbladder, then treatment involves removal of the gallbladder with surgery.

The medical term for this condition is choledocholithiasis, which refers to having stones in the bile ducts, which are the body’s natural tubing system for flow of bile from the liver to gallbladder and on to the intestines. Occasionally stones can escape from the gallbladder and cause blockages in these tubes and this can cause severe abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, fevers, chills, jaundice (yellowing of the skin), and occasionally changes in mental status. This can sometimes be treated with the use of a special type of endoscopic treatment called ERCP. In this procedure, the stones are removed with the use of an endoscope. Other treatments can include surgery or drainage procedures with the help of a radiologist. As with most conditions, the treatment is highly individualized to each patient and treatment is dependent on each specific situation.

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