PANCREATITIS

Pancreatitis is pathologic swelling and inflammation of the pancreas. Your pancreas resides behind your stomach. It secretes enzymes that help you digest food and regulates how your body breaks down sugars.

Pancreatitis can occur as acute pancreatitis, as it appears suddenly and lasts for days, or it can occur as chronic pancreatitis, which can occur over many years.

Gallstones are the most common cause of acute pancreatitis. Gallstones are small, solid masses that form from bile. The pancreas and gallbladder share a bile duct, through which bile and other digestive enzymes pass during digestion. Gallstones can create inflammation in both the bile duct and the pancreas. Alcoholism can also contribute to acute pancreatitis.

Chronic pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas that occurs repeatedly. Patients with chronic pancreatitis can have permanent damage to their pancreas. Scar tissue develops from long-term inflammation. Extensive scar tissue may cause your pancreas to stop making the normal amount of digestive enzymes. As a result, you’re likely to have trouble digesting fats.

Alcohol abuse is the most common cause of chronic pancreatitis in adults. Autoimmune and genetic diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, can also cause chronic pancreatitis in some patients.

Most people who have acute or chronic pancreatitis experience upper abdominal pain as their primary symptom. Some of those who have chronic pancreatitis may show inflammation on imaging scans, but otherwise may show no symptoms.

Other symptoms of pancreatitis may include:

  • pain that wraps around the upper body and involves the back in a band-like pattern
  • indigestion
  • nausea or vomiting
  • abdominal tenderness
  • unintentional weight loss
  • bloating with a distended (swollen) stomach
  • hiccups

Pain associated with pancreatitis may last from a few minutes to several hours at a time. In severe cases, discomfort from chronic pancreatitis could become constant. Your pain is likely to increase after you eat or when you’re lying down. Try sitting up or leaning forward to make yourself more comfortable.

DIAGNOSIS

Your doctor will likely use a combination of blood tests and imaging scans to make a diagnosis. If you have acute pancreatitis, blood tests may show a rise in your level of pancreatic enzymes. Ultrasound, MRI, and CT scans can reveal the size of your pancreas and whether you have a blockage of the bile ducts. A fecal fat test can also determine if your stools have fat content that is higher than normal.

 

TREATMENT

Treatment for acute or chronic pancreatitis often involves hospitalization. The pancreas is key to your digestive process and needs to rest to heal. For this reason, you may receive fluids and nutrition intravenously or through a tube that goes from your nose directly into your stomach, which is called a nasogastric feeding tube. Restarting an oral diet depends on your condition. Some people feel better after a couple of days. Others need a week or two to heal sufficiently.

Diet

A low-fat, healthy diet plays a major role in recovering from pancreatitis. People with chronic pancreatitis, in particular, need to be careful about the amount of fat they consume because their pancreas function has become compromised.

Eat small meals throughout the day to put minimal stress on your digestive system. Stick to low-fat dairy and other foods and drink lots of fluids to stay hydrated. Your doctor might also give you vitamin supplements to ensure that you’re getting the nutrients you need.

Surgery

Determining the underlying cause of your pancreatitis is part of the treatment process. If your doctor diagnoses gallstones or other blockages of the bile ducts, you may need surgery to correct these problems.

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