Digestive enzymes from the pancreas normally do not become active before reaching the small intestine. However, if the pancreas is inflamed, the enzymes can activate within the pancreas and cause tissue damage.
Treatment may not be necessary for mild pancreatitis, but severe pancreatitis can cause life-threatening complications.
Acute and Chronic Pancreatitis
Acute pancreatitis is when the condition appears suddenly and lasts for days. Depending on the severity, acute pancreatitis can be life-threatening. Gallstones and heavy alcohol use are common causes. Acute pancreatitis may occur within hours or as long as two days after consuming alcohol.
Chronic pancreatitis is when the condition occurs over several years, and does not heal or improve. It develops most often in people between the ages of 30 and 40 and is often linked to years of heavy alcohol use.
Chronic pancreatitis can be triggered by a single acute attack that causes damage to the pancreatic duct. That damage causes inflammation and scar tissue, which slowly destroys the pancreas.
The signs of pancreatitis may vary between acute and chronic cases.
Acute pancreatitis symptoms
- Pain in the upper abdomen
- Abdominal pain that radiates to your back
- Swollen or tender abdomen
- Nausea / Vomiting
- Rapid pulse
Chronic pancreatitis symptoms include:
- Pain in the upper abdomen
- Weight loss (unintentional)
- Nausea / Vomiting
- Oily stools
Schedule an appointment if you have persistent abdominal pain. If you have severe abdominal pain, seek immediate care.
Acute Pancreatitis Causes
The most common acute pancreatitis cause is gallstones. Gallstones are stone-like formations that develop in the gallbladder. As gallstones pass through the common bile duct, it can cause inflammation of the pancreas. Heavy alcohol use is also common. Possible acute pancreatitis causes include:
- Heavy alcohol use
- Trauma to the abdomen
- Genetic abnormalities
Chronic Pancreatitis Causes
- Hereditary disorders of the pancreas
- Cystic fibrosis (the most common inherited disorder)
- Hypercalcemia (high levels of calcium in the blood)
- Hyperlipidemia or hypertriglyceridemia (high levels of blood fats)
- Certain medications
- Certain autoimmune conditions
- Long-term alcohol use
- Unknown causes
Hereditary pancreatitis may be present in someone under 30 years old but may go undiagnosed for several years. Brief periods of abdominal pain and diarrhea may come and go and eventually lead to chronic pancreatitis.
Hereditary pancreatitis is more common for people who have two or more family members that have pancreatitis across more than one generation.
Doctors will review a person’s medical history, perform a physical examination, and order blood tests to diagnose pancreatitis. During cases of acute pancreatitis, the blood will have high levels of the digestive enzymes formed in the pancreas.
Procedures and tests used to diagnose pancreatitis include:
- Blood tests – These tests look for elevated levels of pancreatic enzymes.
- Urine or Stool Tests (for chronic pancreatitis)
- CT Scan – A type of x-ray that can create 3-D images of internal organs.
- Ultrasound – Another type of imaging that uses sound waves to visualize internal organs. Doctors look for inflammation in the bile or pancreatic duct.
- Endoscopic Ultrasound (EUS) – A combination of technology, using an endoscope and ultrasound. The endoscope is a thin, lighted tube that is inserted through the mouth and down into the digestive tract. The endoscope is fitted with an ultrasound attachment that produces images of the bile and pancreatic ducts.
- MRI – Magnetic resonance imaging can also be used to look for abnormalities in the gallbladder, pancreas, and ducts.
Treatment for pancreatitis may involve hospitalization. Treatments may include:
- Fasting – To allow your pancreas time to rest, fasting (not eating) may be recommended for several days. This allows your pancreas to recover and a reduction in inflammation.Clear liquids and bland foods can be reintroduced once the inflammation is controlled. Eventually, patients can resume a normal diet. If inflammation persists, a feeding tube may be recommended for proper nutrition.
- Medications for Pain – Severe pain is common with pancreatitis. There are medications that can help.
- IV Fluids – Intravenous fluids will be provided during a hospital stay to ensure proper hydration and nutrient levels.
The underlying cause of pancreatitis will be treated separately once inflammation is under control. Treatment will depend on the underlying cause, and may include:
- Removing obstructions in the bile duct – If pancreatitis is caused by a blocked or narrowed bile duct, it could require a procedure to restore normal function.
- Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) is a procedure that uses a thin tube with a small camera to examine the bile ducts and pancreas. This procedure can help diagnose problems. It also carries a slight risk of complications including severe pancreatitis, bowel perforation, infection, or bleeding. Some procedures are performed using ERCP include
- Sphincterotomy – In this procedure, a tiny incision is made in the muscle surrounding the pancreatic or bile duct using a small wire on the endoscope. This helps enlarge the duct opening.
- Gallstone removal – If gallstones are present, a small basket on the endoscope may be used to retrieve pancreatic or bile duct stones.
- Stent placement – A small piece of plastic or metal resembling a small straw can be inserted into the bile or pancreatic duct to keep it open.
- Balloon dilation – Some endoscopes have can inflate a small balloon that dilates (stretches) the bile or pancreatic duct. A stent may be used temporarily.
- Gallbladder surgery – If pancreatitis is caused by gallstones, surgery to remove your gallbladder (cholecystectomy) may be recommended.
- Pancreas surgery – If fluid needs to be drained from the pancreas, or diseased tissue needs to be removed, it may require surgery.
- Alcohol treatment – If alcohol dependence is the cause of pancreatitis, your doctor may recommend treatment for alcohol addiction. Drinking could worsen pancreatitis and cause serious complications.
- Synthetic pancreatic enzymes – If the pancreas doesn’t make enough enzymes on its own, the doctor may prescribe additional enzymes to be consumed with food.
- Dietary changes – a nutritious, low-fat diet is important for people with pancreatitis. A registered dietitian can help develop a meal plan. Drinking plenty of fluids, avoiding caffeine, and eating more numerous, smaller meals instead of fewer large ones will also help manage pancreatitis.
Complications of Pancreatitis
Pancreatitis can cause some complications, including:
- Pseudocysts – cyst-like pockets in the pancreas that collect fluid and debris. If a pseudocyst ruptures, it could cause further complications like infection and internal bleeding.
- Infection – Pancreatitis can make the pancreas vulnerable to infection.
Kidney failure – Dialysis may be necessary to treat kidney failure caused by pancreatitis.
- Breathing problems – In rare cases, pancreatitis can cause breathing problems by not allowing enough oxygen in your blood.
- Malnutrition – Pancreatitis can cause lower levels the enzymes needed to break down food and process nutrients. This can cause malnutrition, weight loss, and diarrhea.
- Diabetes – If the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas are damaged through pancreatitis, diabetes may develop.
- Pancreatic cancer – The inflammation from chronic pancreatitis increases the risk of developing pancreatic cancer.
Where is the pancreas?
The pancreas is located in the upper abdomen near the stomach and first part of the small intestine (duodenum).
What is the most common cause of pancreatitis?
Some of the most common causes of pancreatitis include gallstones and heavy alcohol use.
How dangerous is pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis can be dangerous if it goes undiagnosed and untreated. If you have the signs or symptoms of pancreatitis, you should seek medical attention.
How can I treat pancreatitis at home?
Pancreatitis cannot be treated at home, but once you leave the hospital and return home, you can aid the healing process by following these recommendations:
- Stop drinking alcohol
- Stop smoking
- Eat a low-fat diet
- Stay hydrated (drink more fluids)