What is pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis is inflammation (swelling) of your pancreas. The pancreas is a gland near your stomach and liver. It makes digestive juices, or enzymes. These help you absorb and digest food. Pancreatitis happens when the enzymes damage the pancreas, causing inflammation.
There are 2 types of pancreatitis:
- Acute – only lasts a few days
- Chronic – lasts a long time (up to a few years)
Both types are serious and can cause complications. Pancreatitis can damage your pancreas permanently. But there are medicines that can help control your pain and help you lead a normal life.
Symptoms of pancreatitis
The symptoms of acute pancreatitis include:
- Pain in your upper abdomen that spreads to your back
- Rapid heart rate
People who have chronic pancreatitis may also experience abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting. They may also have the following symptoms:
- High blood sugar levels
- Unintended weight loss
- Greasy or oily stools
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
Sometimes people with chronic pancreatitis don’t have symptoms until they have complications.
If you have any of the above symptoms, call your doctor right away. Left untreated, pancreatitis can cause can complications that can be fatal.
What causes pancreatitis?
There are a number of factors that can cause pancreatitis. The most common causes are:
- Gallstones (digestive fluids that become solid and form stones in the gallbladder)
- Heavy alcohol use
- Genetic disorders of the pancreas
- Certain medicines
Other causes include:
- High levels of triglycerides (a type of fat in your blood)
- High levels of parathyroid hormone in the blood (called hyperparathyroidism)
- High levels of calcium in the blood (called hypercalcemia)
- Cancer of the pancreas
- Cystic fibrosis
- A family history of pancreatitis
- Abdominal surgery
- Injury to the abdomen
In some cases, doctors don’t know what causes pancreatitis.
How is pancreatitis diagnosed?
Your doctor will do a physical exam and ask you about your symptoms. He or she may do lab tests on samples of your blood or stool. They may also do imaging tests to look for inflammation or other signs of pancreatitis. This could include an ultrasound, which uses sound waves to build a picture of what your organs look like. It could also include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or a computerized tomography (CT) scan.
Can pancreatitis be prevented or avoided?
You can’t prevent pancreatitis, but there are steps you can take to reduce the risk that you will develop it. These include:
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle or lose weight, if needed. By keeping your body at a healthy weight, you can make your pancreas work better and reduce some risk factors for pancreatitis. These include gallstones, obesity, and diabetes. Eat a balanced, low-fat diet and exercise regularly.
- Avoid alcohol. Heavy alcohol use is one of the leading causes of both acute and chronic pancreatitis. Talk to your doctor if you need help to stop drinking.
- Don’t smoke. Smoking is a risk factor for pancreatitis. Your risk goes up even more if you smoke and drink alcohol. Talk to your doctor if you need help to stop smoking.
If you have acute pancreatitis, you may need to stay in the hospital for a few days. There you can get intravenous (IV) fluids, antibiotics, and medicine to relieve pain. Most mild cases of pancreatitis clear up with treatment and rest.
If you have a more severe case of pancreatitis, you may need other treatment. This treatment would depend on the cause of the pancreatitis but could include:
- Gallbladder removal. If you have gallstones, you may need to have your gallbladder removed.
- Other procedures. If you have an abscess or pseudocyst that is infected, your doctor may need to drain it. He or she can remove damaged tissue from your pancreas if that is needed. They can also do other procedures to treat problems with the bile and pancreatic ducts.
If you have chronic pancreatitis, your treatment plan will help relieve pain, improve how well your pancreas works, and manage complications. It may include:
- A low-fat diet
- Medicine to relieve pain
- Insulin to help with high blood sugar levels
- Enzyme tablets (pills that help you digest food)
- Vitamins if your body doesn’t absorb nutrients well
It is also possible that someone with chronic pancreatitis would need surgery. This could help relieve pressure or a blockage in a pancreatic duct. Surgery could also be used to remove a damaged or infected part of your pancreas.
People who have pancreatitis should not drink alcohol or smoke. Some people develop diabetes or cancer of the pancreas because of the damage caused by chronic pancreatitis. These conditions need separate treatment.
Living with pancreatitis
Pancreatitis can be an ongoing disease. Your symptoms may get worse or go away for a while, then come back. You may feel depressed, angry, or frustrated. Chronic pain may make it hard for you to do your daily activities. Talk to your doctor about ways to manage these challenges.
To help manage your pancreatitis, you should:
- Follow your doctor’s instructions carefully.
- Work with your doctor to plan a healthy, low-fat diet.
- Quit smoking and stop drinking alcohol. Talk to your doctor about ways to quit.
- Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. Pancreatitis can cause dehydration.
- If chronic pancreatitis is causing depression, talk to your doctor. It may help to take medicine for depression and/or to talk with a counselor about how you feel.
- Develop a list of goals to improve your quality of life, such as sleeping better or exercising. To reduce stress, learn relaxation exercises.
Questions to ask your doctor
- What types of medicines treat pancreatitis, and what are the side effects?
- Is pancreatitis a sign of another health condition?
- What types of lifestyle changes can I make that help treat pancreatitis?
- What can I do to prevent pancreatitis from getting worse?
- Will I need surgery? Are there other options?
- Does pancreatitis run in families?