Pancreatitis is swelling and irritation of the pancreas. The pancreas is an organ behind the stomach. It makes digestive enzymes and insulin. The digestive enzymes flow into the small intestine to help break down food. Insulin is released into the blood to control the level of sugar in the blood.
Pancreatitis can be acute or chronic. Acute pancreatitis is a sudden attack. After acute pancreatitis, most people recover completely, especially if the disease is diagnosed and treated early enough. Pancreatitis that doesnâ€™t go away or keeps coming back is called chronic pancreatitis. These repeated attacks can cause permanent damage to the pancreas.
What is the cause?
The most common causes of acute pancreatitis are:
Gallstones, which can block the flow of digestive enzymes into your intestines. The buildup of enzymes can irritate your pancreas.
Drinking too much alcohol
Less frequent causes are:
Too much fat in your blood (a very high triglyceride level)
Damage from surgery in nearby organs, such as the stomach or intestines
Injury, such as a hit in the stomach
Side effects from some medicines
Damage from chronic diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease
Radiation treatment for cancer if your belly was exposed to the radiation
Sometimes the cause of pancreatitis is not known.
What are the symptoms?
The main symptom is severe pain in your upper belly. The pain:
Often happens 12 to 24 hours after a large meal or heavy drinking
Spreads to your back and chest
Is steady and sharp
Gets worse when you move
Feels better when you sit or lean forward
Causes nausea and usually makes you vomit
Other symptoms may include:
In severe cases, you may have signs of shock, including:
A fast heartbeat
A cold sweat
If you have any of these signs of shock, get emergency care or call 911 right away.
How is it diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you. Tests may include:
Blood and urine tests
X-rays of your belly and chest
An ultrasound, which uses sound waves to show pictures of the pancreas and gallbladder
CT scan, which uses X-rays and a computer to show detailed pictures of the pancreas
ERCP, which uses X-rays and a flexible, lighted tube passed through your mouth and into the stomach to see the inside of the stomach and the first part of the small intestine
MRCP, which uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to show detailed pictures of the pancreas and gallbladder
How is it treated?
The treatment for pancreatitis depends on its cause, your symptoms, and any other health problems you may have. You will probably stay in the hospital for treatment.
You may need to rest your pancreas by not eating or drinking anything for a few days. During this time you will be given fluids through an IV and pain medicine. Your healthcare provider will let you know when you can start drinking clear liquids. As you get better you will start to eat soft foods that are easy to digest.
If you have gallstones, you may need surgery to remove them. If you are very ill, gallstones may not be removed until you are feeling better.
If you have pancreatitis caused by drinking too much alcohol, you need to stop drinking to prevent more damage to your pancreas.
How can I take care of myself?
Follow the instructions your healthcare provider gives you. This includes how you take prescribed medicines and how active you can be. Don’t take any other medicines, including nonprescription drugs, without asking your healthcare provider.
Ask your provider if you need a special diet.
Donâ€™t drink alcohol.
Try to get at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night.
Ask your provider:
How and when you will hear your test results
How long it will take to recover
What activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
How to take care of yourself at home
What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them
Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.
How can I help prevent another attack of acute pancreatitis?
To help prevent another attack of pancreatitis:
Ask your healthcare provider what seems to have caused your pancreatitis.
Avoid drinking alcohol. If you need help to quit drinking, talk to your healthcare provider about referral to an alcohol treatment center or a group like Alcoholics Anonymous.
If you smoke, try to quit. Smoking makes it more likely the pancreatitis will come back. And combining alcohol and cigarettes increases your chance of having pancreatitis even more. Talk to your healthcare provider about ways to quit smoking.
Eat a healthy diet. Ask your provider about the benefits of talking to a dietician to learn what you need in a healthy diet.
Work with your provider to keep your blood fats (cholesterol) normal.
If injury was the cause of your pancreatitis, follow your healthcare provider’s recommendations for rest and for ways to be physically active without hurting the pancreas again.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth. Last modified: 2015-01-28 Last reviewed: 2015-01-28
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Pancreatitis. US Dept of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. 8/16/2012. NIH Publication No. 08â€“1596. July, 2008. Accessed 11/26/2012 from http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/pancreatitis/.