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.
Are the Types of Pancreatitis?
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
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.
Are the Symptoms of Pancreatitis?
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
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
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.