Pancreatitis: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment

Overview

Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas, which is a long, flat gland behind the stomach in the upper abdomen. The function of the pancreas is to produce enzymes which help digestion and hormones regulating the way your body process glucose.

Pancreatitis can be either acute or chronic. When pancreatitis is acute, it appears suddenly and lasts for days. When pancreatitis is chronic, it occurs over many years. Both of these two conditions can be serious and cause complications.

In recent years, pancreatitis has been becoming more and more common with 275,000 hospital stays for acute pancreatitis happening in the United States each year. And the number of chronic pancreatitis have also reached 86,000. Children are less likely to have pancreatitis, but the number is also rising.

Symptoms

Signs or symptoms of pancreatitis depends on whether you have acute or chronic pancreatitis.

Symptoms of acute pancreatitis include:

  • Upper abdominal pain
  • Abdominal pain that radiates to your back
  • Abdominal pain that feels worse after eating
  • Fever
  • Rapid pulse
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Tenderness when touching the abdomen

Symptoms of chronic pancreatitis include:

  • Upper abdominal pain
  • Losing weight without trying
  • Oily, smelly stools (steatorrhea)

Causes

Common causes of acute and chronic pancreatitis include:

  • Gallstones
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Genetic disorders of your pancreas
  • Some medicines

Other causes involve:

  • Infections, such as viruses or parasites
  • Injury to your abdomen
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Side effects of endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), a procedure used to treat another condition
  • Pancreas divisum

Acute pancreatitis

In most cases, acute pancreatitis results from gallstones. When stones pass through and get stuck in a bile duct or pancreatic duct, they will lead to inflammation of the pancreas.

Chronic pancreatitis

For chronic pancreatitis, heavy alcohol use and genetic disorders of the pancreas are two main causes. It may also be caused by:

  • Blockage in your pancreatic duct
  • High levels of blood fats, called lipids
  • High level of calcium in your blood

However, sometimes the cause can’t be identified. This condition is called idiopathic pancreatitis.

Complications

Pancreatitis may lead to complications such as

  • Pseudocyst
  • Infection
  • Kidney failure
  • Breathing problems
  • Diabetes
  • Malnutrition
  • Pancreatic cancer

Diagnosis

To diagnose pancreatitis, your doctor may use the following tests and procedures:

  • Blood tests: to look for elevated levels of pancreatic enzymes
  • Stool tests: to measure levels of fat
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scan: to look for gallstones and access the extent of pancreas inflammation
  • Abdominal ultrasound: to look for gallstones and pancreas inflammation
  • Endoscopic ultrasound: to look for inflammation and blockages in the pancreatic duct or bile duct
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): to look for abnormalities in the gallbladder, pancreas and ducts

Treatment

At first, you may need initial treatments to keep your pancreatitis under control. These treatments include:

  • Fasting. Stopping eating for several days offers you pancreas a chance to recover.
  • Pain medications. Your doctor will recommend medications to control the pain caused by pancreatitis.
  • Intravenous (IV) fluids. Considering that you may have the risk of dehydration because energy and fluid are needed to repair the pancreas, you will receive extra fluids through a vein in the arm.

After controlling your pancreatitis successfully, your doctor will treat the underlying cause.

According to your own condition, different options may be used. They include:

  • Procedures to remove bile duct obstructions
  • Gallbladder surgery
  • Pancreas surgery
  • Treatment for alcohol dependence

Additional treatments

If you have chronic pancreatitis, additional treatments may be required. These treatments include:

  • Pain management
  • Enzymes to improve digestion
  • Changes to diet

Last but not least, you can have some lifestyle changes to help improve your condition, such as:

  • Stop drinking alcohol
  • Stop smoking
  • Choose a low-fat diet
  • Drink more fluids

Keyword: pancreatitis.

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