What is pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis refers to a condition where there is an inflammation of the pancreas. The pancreas is a flat, long gland that sits behind the stomach in the upper abdomen. This gland produces digestive enzymes into the small intestine which help in digestion. The pancreas also releases insulin and glucagon into the bloodstream. These are hormones that assist in regulating the way your body processes sugar. The inflammation of the pancreas can occur when these enzymes start digesting parts of the pancreas. Acute pancreatitis occurs suddenly and usually goes away in a few days. This kind of pancreatitis can range from mild discomfort to a severe life threatening illness. Chronic pancreatitis refers to a long lasting inflammation which can occur over many years. This can also occur after a bout of acute pancreatitis. Both types of pancreatitis are serious and can lead to severe health complications.
The symptoms of pancreatitis depend on which type of pancreatitis you are suffering from; acute pancreatitis or chronic pancreatitis. The symptoms of acute pancreatitis are
- Upper abdominal pain
- Abdominal pain that also moves to your back
- Abdominal pain that worsens after you eat
- Rapid heart rate/pulse
- The abdomen is tender to touch
Patients suffering from chronic pancreatitis may also experience
- Upper abdominal pain
- Weight loss
- Smelly stools
Pancreatitis risk factors
Some of factors that increase your risk of suffering from pancreatitis are
- Excess alcohol consumption- research indicates that people who are heavy drinkers i.e. drink more than five to six glasses of alcohol per day, over a long period of time are at an increased risk of developing pancreatitis.
- Cigarette smokers- People who smoke are three times more likely to be diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis when compared to people who don’t smoke. However quitting smoking decreases your risk of pancreatitis by half.
- Obesity- people who are over-weight are more likely to develop pancreatitis.
- Genetic pre-disposition- The odds of a person developing pancreatitis is much more likely when he has a family history of this illness.
When the digestive enzymes are activated when they are still in the pancreas, it causes an inflammation of the pancreas thereby causing pancreatitis. When a patient suffers from repeated episodes of acute pancreatitis, the pancreas becomes damaged and leads to chronic pancreatitis.
Some of the conditions that can lead to pancreatitis are:
- Excessive alcohol consumption over a prolonged period of time
- Autoimmune diseases
- Certain medications
- Abdominal surgery
- Cystic fibrosis
- High calcium levels in blood which can be due to an overactive parathyroid gland
- High levels of triglyceride in the blood
- Pancreatic cancer
If your doctor thinks you may be suffering from acute pancreatitis he may ask you to get a blood test to measure the levels of amylase and lipase which are two digestive enzymes. If there are high levels of these two enzymes it indicates acute pancreatitis.
Other pancreatitis tests include:
- ERCP- in which the doctor inserts a long tube with a camera on the other end to inspect your pancreas and bile ducts.
- Pancreatic function test can test whether your pancreas is producing the right amounts of digestive enzymes
- Ultrasound, CT scan and MRI takes images of your pancreas
- In some cases the doctor may suggest a biopsy in which the doctor removes a small piece of tissue from the pancreas using a needle. This is further studied for damage.
In certain cases the doctor may test your
blood and stool to confirm the diagnosis. They may also recommend a glucose tolerance test that can help measure the damage to the cells in the pancreas that make insulin.
If you are diagnosed with acute pancreatitis you may have to stay in the hospital where your treatment will include:
- Antibiotics for an infected pancreas
- Intravenous fluids
- Low-fat diet or fasting so that your pancreas can recover. In cases where the patient has to stop eating, nutrition will be provided through a feeding tube
- Pain medicine
For more severe cases the treatment may include
- Gallbladder surgery if your gallstones are causing the pancreatitis
- Pancreas surgery to remove dead or infected tissue or to clean out the fluid from the pancreas
- ERCP to remove gallstones if they are blocking the bile or pancreas ducts
If you are diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis the treatment you require may also include
- Pancreatic enzymes to help your body get the nutrients from food
- Insulin to help in treating diabetes
- Pain managing medication
Since the majority of pancreatitis cases are related to alcohol abuse, the prevention focuses on limiting the daily consumption of alcohol or giving up drinking all together. Giving up smoking is another way to avoid pancreatitis. It is also important to exercise regularly and eat a low fat diet. Crash diets can also lead to pancreatitis.