What is Pancreatitis?

The pancreas is responsible for regulating blood glucose levels and it plays a major role in the digestion process. Pancreatitis is marked by acute or chronic inflammation of the organ, and it poses a threat to good health. It can also be life-threatening.

Swelling occurs because pancreatic enzymes that should reach the small intestines remain in the pancreas. Acute pancreatitis can become chronic if damage continues and scar tissue forms.

Many diseases and conditions can cause pancreatitis, and they include:

  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Gallbladder disease
  • Prior abdominal surgeries or injury
  • Specific medications
  • Tobacco use
  • Hereditary diseases including cystic fibrosis
  • A specific type of imaging used in gallstone treatment (ERCP)
  • Genetic susceptibility to pancreatitis
  • High blood calcium levels
  • Elevated blood triglyceride levels
  • Infection
  • Cancer of the pancreas

What are the Symptoms of Pancreatitis?

The symptoms of pancreatitis may be mild to severe. It largely depends on the type. Chronic pancreatitis develops gradually, and it may be asymptomatic with the exception of swelling. Acute pancreatitis can develop very suddenly and cause debilitating pain.

Symptoms of acute pancreatitis may include:

  • Pain in the upper abdomen that may travel around the back
  • Stomach pain that worsens after eating
  • Queasiness
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal tenderness

Symptoms of chronic pancreatitis may include:

  • Pain in the upper abdomen
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Unusually foul smelling fatty bowel movements

Pancreatitis Causes

Pancreatitis is caused by inflammation of the pancreas, which occurs when digestive enzymes begin to break down tissues of the pancreas. In cases of acute pancreatitis, this usually occurs as a result of gallstones, which form from hardened bile and block the movement of bile through the bile ducts.

When pancreatitis is chronic, there is usually another long term medical condition or environmental factor involved, which affects the function of the pancreas and leads to repeated acute episodes which makes it difficult for the organ to heal. Subsequently, the pancreas may become permanently damaged which leads to chronic pain and discomfort.

Some potential causes of chronic pancreatitis include:

  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Hypercalcemia (excessive calcium in the blood)
  • Hyperlipidemia (excessive fat in the blood)

It is also possible for chronic pancreatitis to be an inherited condition. Sometimes, it occurs as a symptom of an inherited condition like cystic fibrosis, while in other cases the cause of pancreatitis appears unknown, but the condition is still passed from one generation to the next.

How is Pancreatitis Treated?

The initial goal in treating pancreatitis is the reduction of swelling. The digestive system needs time to rest. Methods to reduce inflammation may include:

  • A low-fat, bland and clear liquid diet or a feeding tube
  • Medication for pain
  • Intravenous fluids to avoid dehydration

The treatment of underlying causes is also necessary. Other treatments for pancreatitis may include:

  • Gallbladder removal
  • Clearing and widening the bile ducts
  • Pancreatic surgery
  • Changes in lifestyle including alcoholism treatment, improved diet and cessation of smoking
  • Oral enzymes to improve digestion
  • Alternatives to certain medications
  • Permanent dietary changes that include nutritious low-fat foods and beverages

Pancreatitis Prevention

Chronic pancreatitis often cannot be prevented if it occurs as a symptom or complication of another medical condition. However, it is possible to reduce the risk of developing pancreatitis by avoiding excessive alcohol consumption.

To prevent acute pancreatitis, it’s important to avoid developing gallstones. Gallstones are common in individuals who are overweight or obese, so by maintaining a healthy BMI you may reduce your risk of pancreatitis. It’s also possible to develop gallstones by losing weight very quickly, so those who are trying to lose weight should aim to lose no more than one to two pounds each week to minimize the risk of pancreatitis.

Diets which are high in refined carbohydrates and include little fiber can also lead to gallstones. By consuming more wholegrain foods it may be possible to prevent gallstones and pancreatitis.