Key Points about Pancreatitis
- Pancreatitis happens when digestive enzymes become activated while still in the pancreas. This leads to swelling and discomfort.
- Acute pancreatitis comes on suddenly, while chronic pancreatitis can last for weeks or even months.
- Treatment for pancreatitis includes letting the pancreas rest and heal, and also focuses on preventing reoccurrence by treating the underlying cause.
Pancreatitis is a condition in which the pancreas becomes inflamed (swollen). The pancreas is located behind the stomach and produces enzymes that regulate digestion and help your body process sugar (glucose).
- Acute pancreatitis comes on suddenly
- Chronic pancreatitis lasts for several weeks or months.
If your pancreatitis is mild, you may not need treatment. However, if your pancreatitis is moderate to severe, you should seek immediate medical care to prevent serious complications.
When digestive enzymes mistakenly become activated while they’re still in the pancreas, this can lead to pancreatitis. Certain conditions may lead to pancreatitis, including:
- Abdominal surgery
- Cystic fibrosis
- Hypercalcemia (high calcium levels in your blood)
- Hyperparathyroidism (overactive parathyroid gland)
- Hypertriglyceridemia (high triglyceride levels in your blood)
- Injury to the abdomen
- Pancreatic cancer
- Taking certain medications
Pancreatitis risk factors
Certain factors can increase the risk of developing pancreatitis:
- Being obese
- Drinking too much alcohol (more than four drinks each day)
- Having family members with pancreatitis
- Smoking cigarettes
The signs and symptoms of acute pancreatitis can include:
- Abdominal pain that worsens after you eat
- Abdominal pain that wraps around to your back
- Feeling of tenderness in your abdomen
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Rapid heart rate
- Upper abdominal pain
The signs and symptoms of chronic pancreatitis may include:
- Oily, smelly stools (steatorrhea)
- Unintentional weight loss
- Upper abdominal pain
Your gastroenterologist may use one or more of the following diagnostic tools to diagnose your pancreatitis:
Blood tests. These can check for high levels of pancreatic enzymes
Stool tests. These can check for high levels of fat in your stool, which can indicate that your digestive system isn’t properly absorbing nutrients.
Imaging tests. Your specialist may recommend an imaging test – such as a computerized tomography (CT) scan, abdominal ultrasound, endoscopic ultrasound or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan – to check for gallstones, blockages or other issues that can cause similar symptoms.
Your initial treatment for pancreatitis will focus on letting your body rest and recover. This treatment may include:
Nutritional therapy. You may need to fast (not eat) for a couple of days so your pancreas can heal. After a few days, you may need to eat clear liquids and bland foods. If your symptoms are still present, you may have to receive nutrition through a feeding tube. Your doctor will closely monitor your nutritional therapy, and you may receive this while in the hospital.
Pain medication. Your specialist may prescribe pain medicine to help you with the discomfort as your body heals.
Intravenous (IV) fluids. If you are dehydrated, your specialist may IV fluids to replace lost fluids in your body.
Once your pancreas is on the road to recovery from the pancreatitis, your specialist may need to treat the underlying cause of the condition so it doesn’t quickly reoccur. Treatment at this point may include:
- Surgery widening of bile duct. If your pancreatitis has been caused by a narrowed or blocked bile duct, your specialist may recommend you undergo a surgical procedure called endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) to widen the duct.
- Gallbladder surgery. If gallstones have caused your pancreatitis, you may need to undergo a surgical removal of your gallbladder (cholecystectomy).
- Pancreas surgery. If your pancreas is holding extra fluid or has disease, your specialist will need to remove that surgically.
- Alcohol dependence treatment. If you regularly drink four or more alcoholic drinks each day, your specialist may recommend treatment for alcohol dependence.
- Pancreatic enzymes. Your specialist may recommend that you take pancreatic enzymes with each meal. This can help your body more effectively digest food and reduce your chance of reoccurring pancreatitis.
- Diet modifications. Your specialist may recommend you each a low-fat, nutritionally dense diet. You may meet with a nutritionist to discuss your diet.
When should I seek care?
If you experience any of these symptoms, start by voicing your concerns and symptoms to your primary care provider. From there, your doctor may suggest seeing a gastroenterologist for more specialized treatment.