Pancreatic Insufficiency Symptoms: Causes, Diagnosis & Treatment

Pancreas is an important organ located in the upper abdomen. One of its functions is to produce enzymes needed for proper digestion of food. Pancreatic insufficiency is a condition which develops when pancreas do not work at its optimum to produce digestive enzymes essentially needed for digestion of food in the small intestine. As a result, the body is unable to procure all the nutrients that are needed for our well being.

Patients suffering from pancreatic insufficiency thus experiences various symptoms such as loss of appetite, weight loss, diarrhea, weakness, bone and leg pain etc.

Several conditions can cause pancreatic insufficiency, such as chronic pancreatitis, Crohn’s disease, pancreatic surgery, chronic abuse of alcohol, diabetes etc.

Pancreatic insufficiency can be corrected with enzyme replacement therapy. Certain natural remedies like goldenseal, cedar berries, dandelion etc also help in increasing pancreatic function.

Causes Of Pancreatic Insufficiency

There are various causes which can lead to pancreatic insufficiency. The basic reason for this condition is damage of pancreas, which leads to lack of production of pancreatic juices. These enzymes are essential for digestion of food in the intestine.

If proper nutrition is not absorbed from the intestine, person will ultimately suffer from malnutrition.

Pancreas may get damaged due to various reasons.

  • Chronic inflammation of pancreas (pancreatitis) due to long time alcohol abuse, stones in the pancreatic duct etc. Alcohol abuse is one of the most common causes of chronic pancreatitis in western countries.
  • Surgery of the pancreas and the stomach where a part of the pancreas is removed.
  • Gastrointestinal diseases such as celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, stomach ulcers, etc.
  • Cystic fibrosis and other hereditary factors which run in families can cause pancreatic insufficiency.

How To Diagnose Pancreatic Insufficiency?

Diagnosis of pancreatic insufficiency may be difficult at times, yet it is not impossible. In order to diagnose, person should be aware of symptoms most frequently observed in pancreatic insufficiency. Due to pancreatic insufficiency, body is unable to breakdown fats present in the food. As a result, the stool appears fatty and bulky, pale and smelly. The stool is oily and it is very difficult to flush out of the vessel as it floats. Patient also complains of abdominal gasses and bloating, lack of appetite, weight loss, cramps in legs, etc.

Aside from the indicative symptoms, non invasive pancreatic tests can help to diagnose mild to severe pancreatic insufficiency. Following tests are useful to diagnose pancreatic insufficiency:

  • Fecal fat test is helpful in establishing whether fat is present in the stool. Stool sample is checked under the microscope for fat cells and certain enzymes such as trypsin and elastase.
  • Blood tests for estimation of serum amylase and lipase may help to detect chronic pancreatitis.

The mainstay of diagnosis is imaging studies. Demonstration of pancreatic calcification on a plain X-ray of the abdomen is pathognomonic of chronic pancreatitis. Ultrasonography may demonstrate many pathological changes in pancreas. CT scan and MRI are more sensitive in detecting calculi or any other pathology which may be missed during the sonogram of upper abdomen.

ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholagio-pancreatography) is an endoscopic test which helps the doctor to observe pancreatic damage more closely with naked eyes. A biopsy can also be taken from the scope while performing ERCP.

Natural Treatment For Pancreatic Insufficiency

The medical option for patients suffering from pancreatic insufficiency is to take pancreatic enzyme supplements for lifetime before each meal. Together with it antacid or H2 receptor is also prescribed to counter excess of acids in the stomach which may cause hindrance in the absorption of supplementary enzyme. Some doctors also advocate intake of fat soluble vitamins.

Aside from medical treatment, there are certain natural options that are effective in improving function of pancreas.

  • Patients should consume foods that are low in fat content. This helps to prevent steatorrhea or pale stools.
  • Stop drinking alcohol since one of the main triggers for causing acute exacerbation of chronic pancreatitis is alcohol. Also stop smoking as it decreases pancreatic secretion.
  • Certain herbs such as dandelion, goldenseal, Echinacea are known to strengthen and stimulate the function of pancreas. However, before taking these herbs patient should always consult his doctor.
  • The person should drink enough water and fluids to prevent dehydration. At least 8 glasses of water should be taken daily.