Pancreatitis is a condition where your pancreas, a gland responsible for secreting digestive enzymes, becomes swollen or inflamed. There are two types of pancreatitis:1
• Acute pancreatitis is where your pancreas suddenly experiences inflammation with very little warning.
• Chronic pancreatitis refers to an acute inflammation that keeps on returning, thus becoming a chronic condition.
The Cause of Pancreatitis Is Unknown, but Several Factors May Increase Your Risk
In the case of acute pancreatitis, the most common factor for increasing your risk of is the accumulation of gallstones in the common bile duct. Gallstones are formed from excess cholesterol or bilirubin, or when your gallbladder doesn't empty properly.2
It is not known how gallstones exactly cause pancreatitis (since they do come from the gallbladder after all), but the connection between gallstones and the development of pancreatitis is clear.3
The causes of chronic pancreatitis are also unknown. However, several factors that contribute to the development of this condition have been identified. One of the top causes is heavy alcohol consumption.4
Experts are not sure how alcohol damages your pancreas over time, but there is clear evidence that large amounts of it contributes to chronic pancreatitis. Autoimmune conditions like lupus may aggravate your pancreas, thus causing chronic pancreatitis as well.5
Other documented causes of pancreatitis include smoking, surgery, abdominal trauma, medication and having high calcium levels in the blood.6
The Different Symptoms of Pancreatitis
One symptom present in both acute and chronic pancreatitis is abdominal pain. In chronic pancreatitis particularly, the pain can be debilitating, and is usually felt on the upper middle portion of the abdomen that may radiate below the ribs. More than half of the time, the pain can be felt on the back as well.7
The next prominent symptom of chronic pancreatitis is gradual weight loss, which stems from the need to reduce food intake because it worsens the pain. Weight loss may also come from malabsorption, a condition where your stomach isn't able to digest food properly, because your pancreas isn't able to produce the necessary enzymes to absorb the food in your intestines. As a side effect, malabsorption may cause bulky and fatty stools as well.8
In acute pancreatitis, you may experience nausea and vomiting. A tender abdomen, along with fever and an increased heart rate, may also develop.9
Diagnostic Methods for Pancreatitis
There are several ways a doctor can diagnose your condition:10
• Transabdominal ultrasound: a doctor glides a handheld device over your abdomen, sending sound waves that bounce back and forth to create an image on a monitor. The doctor will examine the inflammation and if gallstones are present, it will show up on the monitor as well.
• Endoscopic ultrasound: a thin, flexible tube is inserted down your throat, passing through the stomach to reach the small intestine. Once there, an ultrasound device is turned on to create images of your pancreatic and bile ducts.
• Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP): this method uses magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to produce cross-section images of your body. You may be injected with a dye that helps show your pancreas, gallbladder and pancreatic and bile ducts to produce more accurate results.
• Computerized tomography (CT): this method works like an x-ray machine, only it produces 3D images of your body parts. It is usually done when initial treatments don't work and you're not recovering as expected.
Treatment and Prevention Methods for Pancreatitis
On the onset of pancreatitis, you will be required to fast for a couple of days to help your pancreas rest from producing digestive enzymes.11 While recuperating, you will only be allowed to drink water to keep yourself hydrated.12 Once you feel better, there several options available to help treat your condition, depending on the situation.
If gallstones are the cause of your pancreatic inflammation, they will have to be removed. A doctor may place an endoscope through your mouth to remove the stones blocking your pancreatic ducts. If a duct has narrowed, a stent may be placed to widen the opening.13 In life-threatening cases such as the formation of pancreatic abscess or necrotizing pancreatitis, surgery will be required to remove the infection.14
After treatment, you will need to adopt healthy dietary and lifestyle changes to lower your chances of another attack. Eating organic fruits and vegetables and grass-fed meats will help you to get the nourishment your body needs. Sugar must also be limited or eliminated from your diet, as it is a major cause of inflammation throughout your body.
Regular exercise is also recommended, as obesity has been linked to pancreatitis.15 You may want to increase your consumption of foods rich in omega-3 from fatty fish as well. Omega-3 has been found to be effective in treating inflammation, so getting adequate amounts of it may help with your condition.
Lastly, giving up unhealthy habits such as drinking alcohol and cigarette smoking may not only help reduce your risk for pancreatitis, but other diseases as well.