The pancreas is a gland behind the stomach that secretes digestive juices into the small intestine. Sometimes, a duct blockage or other issue will cause these enzymes to digest the pancreas itself. The resulting inflammation is called pancreatitis.
There are two types:
Acute pancreatitis – Often caused by gallstones, this is a sudden inflammation that usually lasts a few days. It may require a short hospital stay so the pancreas can heal, and most people recover. Serious cases can cause bleeding, tissue damage, cysts, and infection.
Chronic pancreatitis – This form of the condition occurs over many years and marks a permanently injured or scarred pancreas. It frequently results from acute pancreatitis but may also be caused by long-term heavy alcohol use. Patients experience flare-ups and persistent symptoms.
Signs of pancreatitis vary depending on the type but are similar.
- Pain in the upper belly that radiates to the back; this pain may worsen when eating, especially fatty foods
- Nausea and vomiting
- Rapid pulse
- A swollen and/or tender belly
- Continuous upper abdominal pain that may radiate to the back
- Weight loss
- Greasy or oily stools
- Nausea and vomiting
The diagnosis of pancreatitis consists of a combination of classic symptoms, findings on imaging, and/or abnormal laboratory results. You should provide a list of all medications, including prescription, over-the counter, and supplements. Your doctor may also order any of the following tests:
- Blood tests – To measure enzyme levels.
- Stool tests – (For chronic pancreatitis) to gauge fat levels and determine if the digestive system is adequately absorbing nutrients.
- Computerized tomography (CT) scan – To identify potential gallstones and assess inflammation.
- Abdominal ultrasound – A tool that sends sound waves to detect gallstones and pancreas inflammation.
- MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) – To examine the gallbladder, pancreas, and ducts for abnormalities.
- ERCP (cholangiopancreatography) – A procedure that is used to relieve blockages of the duct
Care for pancreatitis typically centers on reducing pain and providing needed fluids and nutrition. This may require a stay in the hospital, where the patient can be administered intravenous (IV) fluids, nutrition, and pain relievers.
In more severe cases, the doctor may suggest the following treatments:
- ERCP (cholangiopancreatography) – This procedure, in addition to diagnosing the condition, can remove gallstones if they are blocking the bile or pancreatic ducts.
- Pancreas surgery – This procedure drains fluid and removes damaged tissue from the pancreas, if present.
- Gallbladder surgery or removal – This may be required if gallstones are causing acute pancreatitis.
Patients suffering from chronic pancreatitis may further be required to take enzymes, and follow a special diet. Patients should avoid alcohol and tobacco as this increases your risk of pancreatitis.