The pancreas is an organ that has two major functions in the body: it aids in the digestion of food and helps to regulate blood sugar. Many people have little knowledge of the vital roles the pancreas plays, or even where it is located in the body. A number of serious medical conditions can result when the pancreas is removed, but can you live without it? Fortunately, it is possible.
Your pancreas is located in the abdomen behind the stomach, between the liver and the beginning of the small intestine. It releases digestive juices containing enzymes into the small intestine after you eat. This helps break down the food so it can be converted to energy. The pancreas decreases blood sugar levels through its release of hormones such as insulin. When the pancreas does not make enough insulin to keep blood sugar in check, the result is diabetes.
Pancreatitis is the inflammation of the pancreas. Like all pancreatic conditions, it is difficult to diagnose because of the location of the organ deep within the abdomen. Acute pancreatitis may require removal of the pancreas if an attack is severe and not detected right away. Chronic pancreatitis occurs when the inflammation is constant over time, causing the digestive and regulatory functions of the pancreas to eventually be permanently damaged. In cases where more conservative treatments are not effective, the pancreas is either partially or totally removed.
Pancreatic cancer is another condition that may require the total removal of the pancreas. There are cases where removal of only a portion of the pancreas is necessary, allowing it to continue to function. Unfortunately, pancreatic cancer is difficult to diagnose in its early stages and is often not discovered right away.
Options When the Pancreas is Removed
When the pancreas is removed, insulin injections can provide regulation of blood sugar levels to manage or prevent diabetes. Careful monitoring of glucose levels is necessary to make sure the right amount of insulin is taken at the right time.
A pancreatic transplant is also possible in some cases. If the procedure is successful, it cures diabetes and makes medical management for that condition unnecessary, though maintaining a transplanted organ has its own complications.
There is a procedure available for some patients whose pancreas is removed called islet auto-transplantation, where the cells that produce insulin are removed from the pancreas and reintroduced into the patient’s own body. When successful, this can help prevent diabetes as the body continues to produce its own insulin. Since it requires advanced preparation, the procedure is not possible in cases of emergency surgery to remove the pancreas.
To replace the digestive function of the pancreas, a pill containing enzymes to help digest food must be taken before eating every meal. This will allow the body to absorb the nutrients it needs. Without a pancreas, a patient is responsible for maintaining good health by choosing a healthy diet and making sure to get enough exercise. The complications that result from diabetes and malnutrition are severe and can be fatal.
As the first and largest group of gastroenterologists in central Texas, Austin Gastroenterology provides expert care for all GI disorders. We have 18 offices throughout the greater Austin area. To schedule an appointment, call the office nearest you or you can use our online appointment request form.