What Are the Symptoms of Your Pancreas Not Working Properly?

Published on: June 23, 2020 (Last modified on: January 17, 2023)
Young Woman Suffering From Abdominal Pain Caused By Pancreatitis

Do you know if your pancreas is performing the way it should? The pancreas is a vital organ which plays a crucial role in digestion and hormone production. When disease attacks the pancreas, it can become dysfunctional and no longer work properly. Understanding what the pancreas does, the most common diseases that affect the pancreas and what symptoms these diseases produce are key to monitoring pancreas function.

What Functions Does the Pancreas Perform?

The pancreas is a small organ, about 6-8 inches in length and is located behind the stomach. The pancreas offers aid in digestion and produces glucagon to manage blood sugar. The pancreas produces enzymes that are essential in breaking down fats, carbohydrates and proteins, releasing digestive juices with enzymes into the upper part of the small intestine. In addition, the pancreas produces the hormone insulin, which is crucial in managing how your body uses or stores sugars in the body.

The most common diseases that can impact the performance and function of the pancreas are pancreatitis (acute, chronic and hereditary), diabetes and pancreatic cancer. Each of these diseases can impact the pancreas in different ways and result in the organ not functioning correctly. Knowing the symptoms of when your pancreas is not working properly can help identify if you may have a disease of the pancreas.

pancreas location in the body

Pancreas location on male and female body. The pancreas is found in the upper abdomen, behind the stomach, and ahead of the spine. It is in charge of generating hormones such as insulin, as well as enzymes that aid in digestion.

Symptoms of Acute and Chronic Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas. Acute pancreatitis can occur suddenly, but most patients have complete recovery with supportive treatment. Acute pancreatitis can be caused by gallstones, chronic alcohol consumption, trauma, infections, medications and many other factors.

Chronic pancreatitis is a progressive disease that slowly destroys the pancreas over time – in the U.S., chronic pancreatitis is most commonly caused by chronic alcohol consumption, cystic fibrosis and hereditary conditions. Both acute and the beginning stages of chronic pancreatitis can result in similar symptoms due to the poor performance of the organ. These include:

  • Severe upper abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Bloating
  • Fever
  • Increased heart rate

What are the symptoms of your pancreas not working properly due to ongoing chronic pancreatitis? Beyond the initial symptoms that mimic acute pancreatitis, patients can experience:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Malnutrition
  • Development of diabetes mellitus

Acute and chronic pancreatitis can impact your overall health and cause intense abdominal pain. With the right medical diagnosis and treatment, both types of pancreatitis can be managed to minimize symptoms and improve overall wellness. Hereditary pancreatitis refers to genetic conditions that can cause both acute and chronic pancreatitis.
Man Suffering From Nausea Due To Pancreatitis not working properly

Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer

It is estimated that the U.S. has 37,000 new cases of pancreatic cancer each year. This disease is the fourth leading cause of cancer death among men and the fifth leading cause in women. However, unlike pancreatitis, pancreatic cancer does not impact the function of the pancreas as quickly and does not cause the same type of noticeable symptoms. Instead, there are usually no symptoms early on in the disease. Only in the later stages does pancreatic cancer impact function and result in symptoms such as jaundice, significant weight loss, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and loss of appetite.

Diabetes and the Pancreas

Diabetes and pancreas function are linked since the pancreas produces insulin. Type-1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that attacks the pancreas and causes functional issues. What are the symptoms of your pancreas not working properly due to type-1 diabetes? If the pancreas is no longer producing insulin correctly, the symptoms can include:

  • Thirst
  • Hunger
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Excessive urination
  • Fatigue
  • Unclear or blurred vision

The cause of type-1 diabetes is unknown, but it has been linked to genetic factors and certain viral infections. The disease can attack the beta cells in the pancreas which are responsible for producing insulin. Once these cells are destroyed, the pancreas can no longer perform all its functions properly. Those with pancreas damage from diabetes may require insulin injections or supplementation.

What to Do If You Have Symptoms that Your Pancreas Is Not Working Properly

If you experience symptoms of your pancreas not working properly, it is vital to seek medical diagnosis and treatment. Pancreas dysfunction can jeopardize your health and even be fatal. While your personal doctor can discuss your symptoms and perform some diagnostic testing, if pancreas dysfunction or disease is likely, you may be referred to a specialist. Gastroenterologists specialize in digestive disorders, including pancreatitis. For pancreatic cancer, you may be referred to an oncologist who specializes in pancreatic cancer treatment.

If you have symptoms of pancreatitis, pancreatic cancer or type-1 diabetes, your overall health can be in danger. When the pancreas is not functioning correctly, it can impact your entire body. Now that you know the symptoms of when your pancreas is not working properly, you can identify these signs early and seek medical diagnosis or treatment.

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