What is pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas, an organ in your belly that makes the hormones insulin and glucagon. These two hormones control how your body uses the sugar found in the food you eat. Your pancreas also makes other hormones and enzymes that help you break down food.
The digestive enzymes are produced in one part of the pancreas and travel into the bowel along a duct. If the duct is blocked or injured, these enzymes can leak out and cause pain and swelling. This may happen suddenly or over many years. Over time, it can damage and scar the pancreas.
What causes pancreatitis?
Most cases are caused by gallstones or heavy alcohol use. The disease can also be caused by an injury, an infection, or certain medicines.
Long-term, or chronic, pancreatitis may occur after one attack. But it can also happen over many years. In Western countries, heavy alcohol use is the most common cause of chronic cases.
In some cases doctors don't know what caused the disease.
What are the symptoms?
The main symptom of pancreatitis is medium to severe pain in the upper belly. Pain may also spread to the middle of your back.
Some people have other symptoms too, such as nausea, vomiting, a fever, and sweating.
How is pancreatitis diagnosed?
Your doctor will do a physical exam and ask you questions about your symptoms and past health. You may also have blood tests to see if your levels of certain enzymes are higher than normal. This can mean that you have pancreatitis.
Your doctor may also want you to have a complete blood count (CBC), a liver test, or a stool test.
Other tests include a CT scan, or an ultrasound of your belly (abdominal ultrasound) to look for gallstones. Sometimes a special MRI test (magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP)) is used to look for signs of blocked ducts as the cause of the pancreatitis.
A test called endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatogram, or ERCP, may help your doctor see if you have chronic pancreatitis. During this test, the doctor can also remove gallstones that are stuck in the bile duct.
How is it treated?
Most attacks of pancreatitis need treatment in the hospital. Your doctor will give you pain medicine and fluids through a vein (IV) until the pain and swelling go away.
Fluids and air can build up in your stomach when there are problems with your pancreas. This buildup can cause severe vomiting. If buildup occurs, your doctor may place a tube through your nose and into your stomach to remove the extra fluids and air. This will help make the pancreas less active and swollen.
Although most people get well after an attack of pancreatitis, problems can occur. Problems may include cysts, infection, or death of tissue in the pancreas.
You may need surgery to remove your gallbladder or a part of the pancreas that has been damaged.
If your pancreas has been severely damaged, you may need to take insulin to help your body control blood sugar. You also may need to take pancreatic enzyme pills to help your body digest fat and protein.
If you have chronic pancreatitis, you will need to follow a low-fat diet and stop drinking alcohol. You may also take medicine to manage your pain. Making changes like these may seem hard. But with planning, talking with your doctor, and getting support from family and friends, these changes are possible.