What is pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis is inflammation and swelling of the pancreas. Pancreatitis can’t be cured, but it can be treated with diet and lifestyle changes and medication.
You can usually cure acute cases of pancreatitis with proper treatment and changes in diet. While a doctor cannot always cure chronic cases of pancreatitis, treatment options can help you manage your symptoms.
Pancreatitis is a common condition in which the pancreas becomes inflamed, which causes swelling.
The pancreas is part of your digestive system near your stomach and liver. It produces digestive enzymes that help your body absorb and digest food. Pancreatitis occurs when these enzymes overproduce and damage the pancreas, causing inflammation.
There are three different types of pancreatic enzymes:
- Lipase: This enzyme works to break down fat in your diet. If your body doesn’t produce enough lipase, you won’t be able to absorb fat
- Protease: This enzyme breaks down proteins and helps to protect you from bacteria and yeast that end up in your digestive tract
- Amylase: This enzyme processes starches and turns them into sugar to use for energy
Pancreatitis can be:
- Acute: This is essentially a one-time case of pancreatitis. The condition may become apparent over hours or a couple of weeks
- Chronic: This means that the inflammation will persist for years, even with treatment
Causes of pancreatitis
Alcohol and smoking are heavily linked to pancreatitis, but they aren’t the only known causes. Others include:
- Family history: Pancreatitis can be a hereditary condition. If genes are a factor, your pancreatitis may be chronic
- Genetics: If you have the cystic fibrosis gene, a specific mutation can cause pancreatitis
- Blockage: The pancreas releases enzymes into the small intestine for digestion, but sometimes this opening can get blocked. If something stops the enzymes from getting released, they can back up into the pancreas and cause inflammation
- Autoimmune disorders: Some people with autoimmune disorders may develop antibodies that attack the pancreas
Who can get pancreatitis?
Anyone with a history of drinking alcohol or smoking is at a higher risk for developing pancreatitis. However, anyone can suffer from this condition.
If you are diagnosed with pancreatitis before the age of 20, your pancreatitis is most likely chronic. This means that there is an increased chance the condition will continue to impact you repeatedly throughout your life.
How do you know you have pancreatitis?
Abdominal pain is common in many cases. However, if your pain is intense and lasts longer than 30 minutes, you must seek medical treatment. The main symptom of pancreatitis is severe abdominal pain, sometimes accompanied by uncontrollable vomiting.
Other common symptoms include:
Diagnosis for pancreatitis
Your doctor will ask you to describe your symptoms and will look at your recent medical history. They may ask questions about your diet, alcohol consumption, and history of smoking.
If your doctor suspects pancreatitis, you may need to complete additional tests to confirm your diagnosis, including:
- Blood tests to measure the levels of enzymes produced in the pancreas
- A CT scan, which can determine if there is swelling of the pancreas or a buildup of fluid in your abdomen
- An ultrasound, which your doctor may use if they suspect you have gallstones
- A stool sample, which can help determine if your body isn’t digesting food properly
Treatments for pancreatitis
If you have chronic pancreatitis, you can expect to experience pancreatic attacks again in the future.
Hospitalization is standard during one of these episodes, because medication can’t stop an attack once it starts. Your doctor may not allow you to eat or drink while in the hospital so your pancreas has time to heal and begin working correctly again.
If you have gallstones, your doctor may want to perform surgery to remove your gallbladder. This will lessen your risk of future attacks.
Similarly, if a scan or test shows that there is a significant fluid buildup in your pancreas, you will need pancreatic surgery. A surgeon can drain the inflamed fluid, allowing your pancreas to heal quicker.
If you receive a diagnosis of chronic pancreatitis, your treatment plan will include:
- Consuming less fat in your diet
- Medication to address pain that comes from pancreatitis
- Insulin if you also suffer from, or are at risk for diabetes
- Enzyme tablets to help your body digest food
- Additional vitamins to balance out poor nutrient absorption
- Avoiding alcohol and smoking
Possible complications and side effects
Since there’s no cure for pancreatitis, you should follow your treatment plans closely. The greatest risk is straying from the diet that your doctor has outlined for you. Since you may not feel like you have any problems between episodes, it is easy to think that a bad choice once in a while won’t have consequences.
With the right combination of medication and diet changes, you can easily lower your risk of experiencing attacks in the future. You can achieve this by limiting things in your diet that can upset the enzyme balance in your pancreas.
Medically Reviewed on 1/26/2021
Columbia Surgery: “Pancreatitis.”
Harvard Health Publishing: “Pancreatitis Overview.”
Johns Hopkins Medicine: “The Digestive Process: What Is the Role of Your Pancreas in Digestion?”
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: “Treatment for Pancreatitis.”
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