- Pancreatitis is pathologic swelling and inflammation of the pancreas, which is an organ that is important to digestion and the regulation of blood sugar.
- There are two types of pancreatitis: acute and chronic.
- Treatment for pancreatitis often involves hospitalization and a change in diet.
Pancreatitis is pathologic swelling and inflammation of the pancreas. Your pancreas resides behind your stomach. It secretes enzymes that help you digest food and regulates how your body breaks down sugars.
Pancreatitis can come and go quickly, or it can be a chronic problem. Treatment will depend on whether your pancreatitis is acute or chronic.
The onset of acute pancreatitis is often very sudden. The inflammation usually clears up within several days after treatment begins. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), more than 210,000 American adults are admitted to the hospital for acute pancreatitis every year.
Gallstones are the most common cause of acute pancreatitis. Gallstones are small, solid masses that form from bile. The pancreas and gallbladder share a bile duct, through which bile and other digestive enzymes pass during digestion. Gallstones can create inflammation in both the bile duct and the pancreas. Alcoholism can also contribute to acute pancreatitis.
Chronic pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas that occurs repeatedly. Patients with chronic pancreatitis can have permanent damage to their pancreas. Scar tissue develops from long-term inflammation. Extensive scar tissue may cause your pancreas to stop making the normal amount of digestive enzymes. As a result, you’re likely to have trouble digesting fats.
Alcohol abuse is the most common cause of chronic pancreatitis in adults. Autoimmune and genetic diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, can also cause chronic pancreatitis in some patients.
Most people who have acute or chronic pancreatitis experience upper abdominal pain as their primary symptom. Some of those who have chronic pancreatitis may show inflammation on imaging scans, but otherwise may show no symptoms.
Other symptoms of pancreatitis may include:
- pain that wraps around the upper body and involves the back in a band-like pattern
- nausea or vomiting
- abdominal tenderness
- unintentional weight loss
- bloating with a distended (swollen) stomach
People who have chronic pancreatitis may also experience steatorrhea, or fatty stools that give off a foul odor. Steatorrhea can be a sign of malabsorption. This means you’re not getting all of your essential nutrients because your pancreas doesn’t secrete enough digestive enzymes to break down your food.
Pain associated with pancreatitis may last from a few minutes to several hours at a time. In severe cases, discomfort from chronic pancreatitis could become constant. Your pain is likely to increase after you eat or when you’re lying down. Try sitting up or leaning forward to make yourself more comfortable.
Your doctor will likely use a combination of blood tests and imaging scans to make a diagnosis. If you have acute pancreatitis, blood tests may show a rise in your level of pancreatic enzymes. Ultrasound, MRI, and CT scans can reveal the size of your pancreas and whether you have a blockage of the bile ducts. A fecal fat test can also determine if your stools have fat content that is higher than normal.
Treatment for acute or chronic pancreatitis often involves hospitalization. The pancreas is key to your digestive process and needs to rest to heal. For this reason, you may receive fluids and nutrition intravenously or through a tube that goes from your nose directly into your stomach, which is called a nasogastric feeding tube. Restarting an oral diet depends on your condition. Some people feel better after a couple of days. Others need a week or two to heal sufficiently.
A low-fat, healthy diet plays a major role in recovering from pancreatitis. People with chronic pancreatitis, in particular, need to be careful about the amount of fat they consume because their pancreas function has become compromised.
Eat small meals throughout the day to put minimal stress on your digestive system. Stick to low-fat dairy and other foods and drink lots of fluids to stay hydrated. Your doctor might also give you vitamin supplements to ensure that you’re getting the nutrients you need.
Determining the underlying cause of your pancreatitis is part of the treatment process. If your doctor diagnoses gallstones or other blockages of the bile ducts, you may need surgery to correct these problems.
Stop smoking and drinking alcohol in excess to help you heal more quickly and completely. Discuss these issues with your doctor if you need help quitting.
Alternative Techniques for Pain Control
You will probably be given intravenous pain medication in the hospital. However, alternative therapies may also help reduce pancreatitis pain, according to the Mayo Clinic. Try yoga, relaxation exercises such as deep breathing, and meditation if conventional treatments don’t reduce your pain. These alternative treatments focus on slow, measured movements that can take your mind off your discomfort.
Some patients may develop complications. These complications are rare, but they’re more common in people with chronic pancreatitis:
- kidney damage
- pancreatic cancer
- pancreatic infection
Patients who have acute pancreatitis may also be at risk for developing breathing difficulties.
You can control pancreatitis with a healthy lifestyle and medical treatment when necessary. Organizations such as the National Pancreas Foundation can provide resources and support to help you live a full and healthy life with pancreatitis.
However, if any of your symptoms recur, speak with your doctor as soon as possible.
You Asked, We Answered
- Is it possible for acute pancreatitis to develop into chronic pancreatitis?
The mechanism of progression of acute to chronic pancreatitis is not completely understood, but research indicates that it most commonly occurs in patients with alcoholic pancreatitis. Smoking appears to increase the risk of progression. The frequency and severity of acute episodes may also contribute to progression from acute to chronic. Approximately 45% of patients with acute alcoholic pancreatitis will progress to the chronic form. This can take between 1 to 20 years to occur.- Graham Rogers, MD