Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas. The pancreas is a long, flattened gland located in the upper part of the stomach, behind the stomach. The pancreas produces enzymes that aid digestion and hormones that help your body regulate the process of processing sugar (glucose).
Pancreatitis can occur as severe pancreatitis, it can appear suddenly and last for days. Some people develop chronic pancreatitis, which can last for years.
Mild cases of pancreatitis improve with treatment, but severe cases can lead to life-threatening complications.
Symptoms of pancreatitis may vary, depending on which type you experience.
Acute pancreatitis symptoms include:
- Upper abdominal pain
- Abdominal pain that radiates to your back
- Tenderness when touching the abdomen
- Rapid pulse
Chronic pancreatitis symptoms include:
- Upper abdominal pain
- Abdominal pain that feels bad after eating
- Losing weight without trying
- Oily, smelly stools (steatorrhea)
Pancreatitis is caused when digestive enzymes are activated in the pancreas, which irritates the cells of your pancreas and causes inflammation.
With repeated bouts of acute pancreatitis, damage to the pancreas can appear and lead to chronic pancreatitis. Scar tissue may form in the pancreas, causing loss of function. A poorly functioning pancreas can cause digestion issues and diabetes.
Conditions that can lead to acute pancreatitis include:
- Pancreatic cancer
- Certain medications
- High triglyceride levels in the blood (hypertriglyceridemia)
- High levels of calcium in the blood (hypercalcemia), which can be caused by an overactive parathyroid gland (hyperthyroidism)
- Abdominal surgery
- Cystic fibrosis
- Injury to the abdomen
Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), used to treat gallstones, can also lead to pancreatitis.
Sometimes, the cause of pancreatitis is not found. This is called idiopathic pancreatitis.
Factors that increase your risk of chronic pancreatitis include:
- Excessive alcohol consumption. Research shows that heavy drinkers (those who drink four to five drinks a day) are at increased risk for pancreatitis.
- Cigarette smoking. Compared to non-smokers, smokers develop an average of three times as much chronic pancreatitis. The good news is, that quitting smoking can halve your risk.
- Obesity. If you are obese you are more likely to get pancreatitis.
- Diabetes. Having diabetes increases your risk of pancreatitis.
- Family history of pancreatitis. The role of genetics in chronic pancreatitis is increasingly recognized. If you have family members with this condition, your conflicts will increase – especially if combined with other risk factors.
Pancreatitis can cause serious complications, including:
- Kidney failure. Acute pancreatitis can cause kidney failure, and if the kidney failure is severe and persistent, it can be treated with dialysis.
- Breathing problems. Acute pancreatitis can cause chemical changes in your body that affect the function of your lungs, causing the level of oxygen in your blood to drop to dangerously low levels.
- Infection. Acute pancreatitis can cause your pancreas to become infected with bacteria and infections. Pancreatic infection is severe and requires intensive treatment such as surgery to remove the affected tissue.
- Pseudocyst. Acute pancreatitis is the accumulation of fluid and debris in the cyst-like sacs in your pancreas. A large pseudocyst degenerates, causing complications such as internal bleeding and infection.
- Malnutrition. Both acute and chronic pancreatitis cause your pancreas to break down nutrients from the food you eat and produce less of the enzymes needed for processing. Even if you eat the same foods or the same amount of food, it can lead to malnutrition, diarrhea, and weight loss.
- Diabetes. Damage to the insulin-producing cells in your pancreas caused by chronic pancreatitis can lead to diabetes, which affects the way your body uses blood sugar.
- Pancreatic cancer. Chronic inflammation in your pancreas caused by chronic pancreatitis is a risk factor for developing pancreatic cancer.
When to see a doctor
See your doctor if you have severe abdominal pain or persistent abdominal pain. If your abdominal pain is so severe that you are unable to sit still or find a position that is most comfortable for you, seek medical help immediately.