Pancreatitis is a medical condition wherein the pancreas is inflamed. This can cause mild to severe pain in the abdominal area. When left untreated, pancreatitis can lead to more serious medical problems that can become life-threatening.
The pancreas is an internal organ, measuring about 6-inch long, that is inside the abdomen. To be specific, it is located just behind the stomach and next to the small intestines. This organ plays a vital role in the body. It produces two types of important substances: enzymes and hormones.
The exocrine function of the pancreas involves the production of enzymes that aid in digestion. Each day, the pancreas releases about 8 ounces of digestive juices that contain different kinds of enzymes. These enzymes help break down fats, sugar, and starches.
Its endocrine function is responsible for making hormones including insulin, glucagon, gastrin, and amylin. These hormones are released into the bloodstream. They are in charge of regulating blood sugar.
When the pancreas is not functioning properly, it can cause digestive problems, infection, kidney problems, insulin problems, and more.
Types of Pancreatitis
There are two types of pancreatitis: acute and chronic. Treatment will depend on the severity of the symptoms and your current physical condition.
Acute pancreatitis is inflammation that happens suddenly and lasts for a short time. This is one of the most common reasons for hospital admissions because of gastrointestinal issues. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, about 275,000 Americans are treated for acute pancreatitis in the hospital every year.
Usually, this clears within days after treatment but more severe cases would require a couple of days in the hospital.
Chronic pancreatitis is a condition when the inflammation comes back consistently. This is long-lasting inflammation that can range from mild to severe. Without the right treatment, chronic pancreatitis can lead to irreversible damage to the organ. It can also affect other vital organs including the heart, lungs, and kidneys.
What Causes Pancreatitis?
There are many different causes of pancreatitis. Here are the most common ones:
- longtime alcohol use
- autoimmune diseases
- metabolic disorders
The most common cause of acute pancreatitis is gallstones. Small stones that travel from the gallbladder can get stuck in the pancreatic duct. When this happens, the blockage can cause a backup of enzymes that lead to inflammation of the pancreas.
Another common cause is longtime alcohol use. This is the second most cause of pancreatitis after gallstones. According to a medical study, chronic alcohol consumption causes 17% – 25% of acute pancreatitis worldwide. The symptoms rarely manifest after a single episode of drinking, but rather after years of longtime heavy drinking.
There are also certain factors that can make you more prone to developing pancreatitis. You are more likely to get pancreatitis if you have any of the factors listed below:
- history of pancreatitis in the family
- are obese
- have diabetes
- are male
- are African-American
- are a smoker
- have a long history of alcohol abuse
Symptoms of Pancreatitis
The symptoms of pancreatitis can be different for each individual. Some may experience only one symptom, while others can have multiple symptoms during a flare-up. The symptoms that appear will depend on your body’s immune response to the inflammation and also the severity of the condition.
Here are the most common symptoms of pancreatitis:
1. Abdominal Pain
The most common sign of pancreatitis is pain that occurs in the upper part of the abdominal area. The pain is often described as stabbing and sharp. In severe cases, the pain can be extreme and debilitating. It is usually felt after eating food. There are certain foods that can trigger a pancreatic attack.
The worse foods that you can eat if you have pancreatitis are:
- oily foods
- red meat
- fried foods
- dairy products
- processed meats
Pain from pancreatitis can last anywhere from minutes to hours. It often starts in the upper abdomen, below the ribcage, or on the upper left side and radiates to your mid-back. The pain can get worse when you eat and when you are lying down.
This can also be accompanied by a swollen or tender abdomen. When you push down on the upper belly, you would be able to feel a little tenderness. The severity of the pain can be mild to severe and can last for several days.
Low-grade to moderate fever is another common symptom of pancreatitis. Because the organ is fighting inflammation, the body can manifest a fever as an immune response to the inflammation.
Not all cases of pancreatitis, however, can present a fever. There are many individuals who don’t have a fever but still have acute or chronic pancreatitis.
In a study published in the National Library of Medicine, about 60% of participants who had acute pancreatitis developed a fever. 18% of them had infected pancreatic necrosis. Pancreatitis is more likely to progress into something more severe if you’ve developed a fever when you are having a flare-up.
Because an inflamed pancreas will affect the digestion process, it is normal for your stool habits to change. Diarrhea is one of the symptoms of pancreatitis. Others may also notice a change in the color and shape of their stool.
Pancreatitis often produces stool that is pale, less dense, and sometimes even greasy. This is because the organ is not functioning as it should be. The pancreas produces enzymes that digest fats in your diet. When it is malfunctioning, it is unable to produce these essential enzymes. This results in discolored, oily stool that could also be more foul-smelling than usual.
Constipation is also a common symptom of acute and chronic pancreatitis. When the digestive system works slower than normal, this results in dry and hard stools that are difficult to pass.
4. Nausea and Vomiting
Nausea is another symptom that you may feel if you have pancreatitis. This is often triggered by high-fat foods like burgers, avocados, nuts, and pizza.
This is because the digestive system is not able to break down fats as easily anymore when the pancreas is inflamed.
Sometimes, this can also be accompanied by vomiting. When the pain is too much and also because of the toxins released by the inflamed pancreas, vomiting can happen. To avoid this from happening, it helps to eat a healthy diet. For more severe cases, you can also take medication to help control nausea and vomiting.
6. Rapid Heart Rate
Some people also experience an elevated heart rate. The pulse can rise to 100 – 140 beats per minute during a pancreatitis flare-up.
Tachycardia or rapid heart rate is a common symptom that appears when you have acute or chronic pancreatitis. This is caused by the inflammation or sometimes, infection present in the pancreas or its surrounding organs.
Jaundice is when the skin and the whites of the eyes turn a yellow tint. This usually happens when there is too much bilirubin in the system.
In pancreatitis, this happens in more severe cases. This usually occurs when there is biliary tract disease caused by pancreatitis or duct obstruction.
This can also be a sign of diabetes. Diabetes is one of the common complications that happen with chronic pancreatitis. Because chronic inflammation can damage the cells, the pancreas will have a difficult time producing insulin. This hormone is essential to the regulation of blood sugar. Long-term insulin problems lead to diabetes.
8. Weight Loss
Those with chronic pancreatitis also suffer from weight loss, even when their appetite hasn’t changed and their eating habits are normal. This is because the body is unable to absorb the nutrients in your food.
You may notice a slow decline in your weight over time. Another common symptom among individuals with pancreatitis is low energy or fatigue. You might find yourself feeling sleepy in the middle of the day and not having enough energy to do your usual daily activities.
This is because the food you are eating isn’t properly broken down. When this happens, the nutrients don’t get distributed properly to fuel your muscles, cells, and system. It is ideal to take supplements to give your body the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that it’s missing.
9. Low Blood Pressure
Damage to the pancreas also activates the release of toxins. These toxins sometimes get into the bloodstream and cause low blood pressure.
In severe cases of pancreatitis, parts of the pancreas can die. When necrotizing pancreatitis is present, there is a possibility that the blood and pancreatic juice can burst out of the abdominal cavity. This can cause a sudden and large drop in blood pressure and result in shock. The heart, lungs, and kidneys may fail.
This is a dangerous situation and requires immediate treatment. Without proper treatment, a large drop in blood pressure from shock can be fatal.
How Pancreatitis Is Diagnosed
Diagnosing pancreatitis can be a little difficult because its symptoms can be similar to other medical conditions. It’s not uncommon for people to delay treatment because they don’t recognize their condition right away. Some people brush off their signs and symptoms or mistake them for another medical problem.
There are several ways doctors check the condition of your pancreas. A number of tests are done to determine the health of the pancreas. Imaging tests like a CT scan, MRI, or x-ray are done to detect inflammation or gallstones.
A blood test will also be done to detect the enzyme level of the pancreas. Two enzymes – amylase and lipase – increase during a pancreatic attack. Elevated levels of these hormones indicate inflammation in the pancreas.
Treatment for Pancreatitis
The treatment for pancreatitis will differ from person to person. It will depend on the severity of the case as well as the symptoms that need to be treated.
Mild pancreatitis flare-ups can clear up within a couple of days with proper diet and rest. Although, some pancreatic attacks may need medication and hospitalization. Pain management medication, IV fluids, and monitoring is done to heal the inflammation.
Severe pancreatitis often requires immediate attention and treatment because it can lead to life-threatening complications. Most people who have severe pancreatitis will not be able to eat during the first days of their treatments and will need to be fed through an IV or a tube through the nose.
Once the pancreas has calmed down, procedures are done to treat the cause of the inflammation. Typically, surgery is done to remove a bile obstruction or the gallbladder, which can be causing gallstones. In some cases when there is too much damage, surgery is needed to remove parts of the pancreas that have died.
Aside from medication and treatment, lifestyle changes are also usually necessary. A diet that’s low in fat and high in protein is ideal. Foods that are rich in antioxidants will also help control inflammation and clean out the toxins. The best foods to keep your pancreas healthy include green vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, and lentils.
Here are some other tips to speed up the healing of your pancreas:
- Eat small frequent meals instead of large meals. This will make it easier for your digestive system to process the food.
- Take a multivitamin to make sure that your body is still getting the nutrients it needs.
- Avoid alcohol and smoking, as these can trigger a pancreatic flare-up. Heavy drinking is one of the leading causes of pancreatitis.
- Get plenty of sleep to help your body recover faster.
- Avoid getting stressed. The body releases toxins when you are stressed and this can affect the health of the pancreas.
Pancreatitis is a painful condition that can lead to life-threatening complications when it is not treated correctly. It is often caused by gallstones, an unhealthy lifestyle, or genetic conditions. However, with the right treatment and a healthy diet, you can heal the inflammation and make your pancreas healthier. Prompt treatment and a healthy diet are necessary to make sure that pancreatitis doesn’t develop into a more serious illness.