Pancreatitis: An Overview

Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas. It can be either acute or chronic, and has several potential causes. Here’s what you need to know about the condition. 

Pancreatitis Causes and Risk Factors

Pancreatitis occurs when digestive enzymes are activated while in the pancreas, irritating cells and causing inflammation. It can be acute or chronic. Repetitive acute cases can cause permanent damage to the pancreas and lead to chronic issues. 

Some potential causes include gallstones, alcoholism, infections, cystic fibrosis, genetic disorders, obesity, cancer, and abdominal injuries. Acute cases are most often caused by gallstones. Chronic cases are most often a result of heavy alcohol use or genetic disorders. 

There are several risk factors for pancreatitis. Heavy alcohol use and smoking are both risk factors. Heavy drinkers- people drinking 4-5+ drinks each day- have an increased risk. Smokers are around 3x more likely to develop the condition, and people who quit smoking decrease their risk by about half. 

Symptoms

The most common symptom of pancreatitis is upper abdominal pain that can spread to your back. In acute cases, the pain usually begins in the upper abdomen and sometimes spreads to the back. It can last for a few days and can be mild to severe. People with acute cases may also have a fever and a swollen abdomen, and experience nausea, vomiting, and a fast heartbeat. 

In chronic cases, people also usually feel pain in their upper abdomen that sometimes spreads to the back. However, in some cases people may not feel any symptoms if the condition is not advanced. If it does become advanced, the pain can become severe and constant, becoming worse after eating. Other symptoms in these cases can include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, and greasy stools. Severe chronic and acute cases require medical attention.

Diagnosing Pancreatitis

An array of tests can help diagnose pancreatitis. Doctors often use blood tests to check for elevated pancreatic enzyme levels. In chronic cases, stool tests can help identify high levels of fat that indicate malabsorption. Plus, CT scans and abdominal ultrasounds can identify gallstones and the amount of pancreatic inflammation. MRIs can also look for issues in the pancreas, gallbladder, and ducts. Also, doctors can use endoscopic ultrasounds to identify blockages and inflammation in the pancreatic or bile ducts. 

Treatment and Prevention

Treating pancreatitis usually begins with a few steps in the hospital. Usually, patients fast for a few days to rest the pancreas. Doctors may place an IV to prevent or treat dehydration. Medications can help with pain as well.  

After these initial steps, doctors work to treat the underlying cause of pancreatitis. Sometimes, this can mean gallbladder surgery to remove the gallbladder if gallstones are a factor. In other cases, it may mean surgery on the pancreas to drain fluid or remove diseased tissue. An ERCP can help diagnose and treat causes like bile and pancreatic duct problems as well. 

If heavy alcohol use is a factor, reducing alcohol consumption is an important step to prevent serious complications. Additionally, in chronic cases of pancreatitis, ongoing pain management may be necessary. This can include a combination of medications, surgery, and endoscopic ultrasounds to relieve pain. Also, dietary changes (pursuing low-fat, high-nutrient diets) can also help in chronic cases.

Our experienced team at GHP has years of experience treating conditions including pancreatitis. We can help establish the best plan of care for your situation. Contact any of our office locations to learn about the options we offer and schedule an appointment today.