Pancreatitis

Written by Erica Roth | Published on July 25, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is Pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis is swelling and inflammation of the pancreas. Your pancreas is located behind your stomach. The organ secretes enzymes that help you digest food and regulates how your body uses sugar.

Pancreatitis can come and go quickly or become a chronic problem. Treatment will depend on whether your pancreatitis is acute or chronic.

What Are the Types of Pancreatitis?

The onset of acute pancreatitis is often very sudden. The inflammation usually clears up within a few days, once treatment begins. According to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC), more than 210,000 American adults are admitted to the hospital for acute pancreatitis every year. (NDDIC)

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 inflammation that recurs. Patients with chronic pancreatitis can suffer permanent damage to the 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 are likely to have trouble digesting fats.

According to the National Insistutes of Health, alcohol abuse is the most common cause of chronic pancreatitis in adults. (NIH) Autoimmune and genetic diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, can also cause chronic pancreatitis in some patients.

What Are the Symptoms of Pancreatitis?

Most patients who have acute or chronic pancreatitis experience upper abdominal pain as their primary symptom. Those who have chronic pancreatitis may show inflammation on imaging scans, but otherwise be asymptomatic.

Other symptoms of pancreatitis may include:

  • pain that extends from your left side around to your back
  • indigestion
  • nausea or vomiting
  • abdominal tenderness
  • unintentional weight loss
  • bloating with a distended (swollen) stomach
  • hiccups

People who have chronic pancreatitis may also experience steatorrhea. Steatorrhea is the term for fatty stools that give off a foul odor. Steatorrhea can be a sign of malabsorption. This means you are not getting all of your essential nutrients because your pancreas does not secrete enough digestive enzymes to break down your food.

Pain associated with pancreatitis may last for 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 and when you are lying down. Try sitting up or leaning forward to make yourself more comfortable.

Diagnosing Pancreatitis

Your doctor will 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 (magnetic resonance imaging), and CT (computerized tomography) scans can reveal the size of your pancreas and whether or not you have a blockage of the bile ducts. Running a fecal fat test can also determine if your stools have higher-than-normal fat content.

Treating Pancreatitis

Treatment for acute or chronic pancreatitis often involves hospitalization. The pancreas is key to your digestive process and needs to rest in order to heal. For this reason, you may be given fluids and nutrition intravenously or through a tube that goes from your nose directly into your stomach (a 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.

Diet

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.

You should 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 are getting the nutrients you need.

Surgery

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.

Lifestyle Changes

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. (Mayo Clinic) Try yoga, relaxation exercises such as deep breathing, and meditation if conventional treatments do not reduce your pain. These alternative treatments focus on slow, measured movements that can take your mind off your discomfort.

Complications and Risks

Pancreatitis can be controlled with a healthy lifestyle and medical treatment when necessary. However, some patients do develop complications. These complications are rare, but are more common in people with chronic pancreatitis:

  • kidney damage
  • pancreatic cancer
  • diabetes
  • malnutrition
  • pancreatic infection

Patients who have acute pancreatitis may also be at risk for developing breathing difficulties.

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