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Pancreatitis: Are You at Risk?

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Pancreatitis: Are You at Risk?

Pancreatitis is a condition in which your pancreas becomes inflamed. It can be acute or chronic, but both forms are serious and can lead to complications if not treated. Read on to learn more.

What is pancreatitis?

The pancreas is an organ (actually, a gland) that sits behind the stomach and close to the first part of the small intestine. Its job is to make enzymes that help with digestion, as well as hormones, such as insulin and glucagon, that help regulate blood sugar.

Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas, and it occurs when enzymes damage the pancreas. There are two types of pancreatitis, acute and chronic. Acute pancreatitis comes on suddenly and lasts only a short while. It tends to go away after a few days with treatment, although some people have a more severe form of acute pancreatitis that may require a lengthy hospital stay.

Chronic pancreatitis is a longer-lasting condition. With this type, the pancreas doesn’t heal, and it tends to get worse over time.

What are symptoms of pancreatitis?

The main symptom of both acute and chronic pancreatitis is pain in the upper abdomen (stomach area) that can spread to the back.

People with acute pancreatitis may have pain that comes on suddenly; the pain may be mild or severe. Other symptoms may include:

  • Fever
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Swollen or tender abdomen
  • Fast heartbeat

People with acute pancreatitis look and feel very ill and need medical attention right away.

With chronic pancreatitis, a person may have pain in the upper abdomen or no pain at all. Pain may worsen after eating, and it may even go away as the condition progresses. Other symptoms include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Greasy, foul-smelling stools
  • Weight loss

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What causes pancreatitis?

Common causes of acute pancreatitis are:

  • Gallstones
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Some medicines, including GLP-1 agonists and DPP4 inhibitors
  • Genetic disorders
  • Infection
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • High triglycerides
  • Abdominal surgery
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Injury to the abdomen
  • Obesity
  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), used to treat gallstones

Causes of chronic pancreatitis are:

  • Gallstones
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Genetic disorders of the pancreas
  • Blockage in the pancreatic duct
  •  High triglycerides
  • High levels of calcium in the blood

Sometimes there isn’t a known cause of pancreatitis. This is called idiopathic pancreatitis.

What increases the risk of pancreatitis?

Certain groups of people have a higher risk than others for getting either acute or chronic pancreatitis, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK):

  • Men
  • African Americans
  • Family history of pancreatitis
  • Personal or family history of gallstones

Also, some health conditions and health concerns can put you at a higher risk. These include:

  • Diabetes
  • Gallstones
  • High triglycerides
  • Genetic disorders of the pancreas
  • Some autoimmune conditions
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Obesity
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Smoking

Pancreatitis can lead to serious complications, such as:

  • Heart, lung, or kidney failure
  • Blockage in a bile or pancreatic duct
  • Damage to the pancreas
  • Diabetes
  • Infection
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Malnutrition

How is pancreatitis diagnosed?

If your health care provider suspects that you have pancreatitis, they will likely order certain tests and procedures to confirm a diagnosis and determine the cause:

  • Blood tests to check high levels of pancreatic liver enzymes, kidney function, white blood cells
  • Stool tests to check for fat malabsorption
  • Imaging tests, such as ultrasound, CT scan, and/or MRI to look for inflammation, gallstones, and blockages

How is pancreatitis treated?

Pancreatitis may initially be treated in the hospital with intravenous fluids, pain medication, and a low-fat diet. If gallstones are causing the pancreatitis, you may need your gallbladder removed. You might also have certain procedures, such as draining the fluid from your abdomen or a procedure to remove a bile duct obstruction. If a medication is thought to be the cause of pancreatitis, you’ll need to stop the medication.

Chronic pancreatitis may be treated with enzymes in pill form, along with certain vitamins if you have malabsorption. You may be referred to a dietitian for help with following a low-fat diet. Part of your pancreas may be removed, as well. Your provider should recommend a pain management plan, too.

You may develop diabetes as a result of having chronic pancreatitis; if so, you’ll need a treatment plan that should include medication, blood glucose monitoring, and lifestyle measures.

How can you prevent pancreatitis?

There are steps that you can take to lower your risk of getting pancreatitis or preventing future episodes of this condition:

Want to learn more diabetes basics? Read “Welcome to Diabetes” for type 2, “Type 1 Diabetes Questions and Answers” for type 1, and “Gestational Diabetes: Are You at Risk?” for gestational diabetes. 

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES on social media

A Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator at Good Measures, LLC, where she is a CDE manager for a virtual diabetes program. Campbell is the author of Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition & Meal Planning, a co-author of 16 Myths of a Diabetic Diet, and has written for  publications including Diabetes Self-Management, Diabetes Spectrum, Clinical Diabetes, the Diabetes Research & Wellness Foundation’s newsletter, DiabeticConnect.com, and CDiabetes.com

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