Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas. It can be acute or chronic. Nutritional support and pain-relieving medications are usually involved in the treatment of pancreatitis.

Pancreatitis Overview

Reviewed: May 22, 2014

Pancreatitis is inflammation in the tissues of the pancreas. The pancreas is a long, flat gland that sits behind the stomach in the upper abdomen. The pancreas produces enzymes that assist digestion and hormones that help regulate the way your body processes sugar.

Pancreatitis happens when digestive enzymes start digesting the pancreas itself.

Pancreatitis can be acute pancreatitis — meaning it appears suddenly and lasts for days – or chronic pancreatitis – meaning it occurs over many years. Both forms are serious and can lead to life-threatening complications.

Treatment for pancreatitis usually includes administration of fluids, nuitritional support, and medicines to relieve pain.

Pancreatitis Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of pancreatitis vary, depending on whether it is acute or chronic.

Signs and symptoms of acute pancreatitis include:

  • upper abdominal pain
  • abdominal pain that radiates to your back
  • abdominal pain that feels worse after eating
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • tenderness when touching the abdomen

Signs and symptoms of chronic pancreatitis include:

  • upper abdominal pain
  • losing weight without trying
  • oily, smelly stools (steatorrhea)

Pancreatitis Causes

Pancreatitis occurs when digestive enzymes produced in your pancreas become activated while inside the pancreas, causing damage to the organ.

Several causes have been identified for acute pancreatitis and chronic pancreatitis, including:

  • alcoholism or heavy alcohol use
  • gallstones
  • abdominal surgery
  • certain medications
  • cigarette smoking
  • cystic fibrosis
  • endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), when used to treat gallstones
  • family history of pancreatitis
  • high calcium levels in the blood (hypercalcemia), which may be caused by an overactive parathyroid gland (hyperparathyroidism)
  • high triglyceride levels in the blood (hypertriglyceridemia)
  • infection
  • injury to the abdomen
  • pancreatic cancer

Acute pancreatitis occurs suddenly and usually goes away in a few days with treatment. It is often caused by gallstones.

Chronic pancreatitis does not heal or improve. It gets worse over time and leads to permanent damage. The most common cause is heavy alcohol use. Other causes include cystic fibrosis and other inherited disorders, high levels of calcium or fats in the blood, some medicines, and autoimmune conditions.

Pancreatitis Diagnosis

Several tests may be used to diagnose pancreatitis.

Blood tests. Blood tests can reveal elevated levels of pancreatic enzymes that may signify pancreatitis.

Stool tests. In chronic pancreatitis, stool tests may be used to measure levels of fat that could suggest your digestive system is not adequately absorbing nutrients.

Imaging tests. Computerized tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and abdominal or endoscopic ultrasounds can reveal gallstones, blockages, or abnormalities and assess the extent of pancreas inflammation.

Living With Pancreatitis

After the initial treatment for pancreatitis, you can take steps to continue your recovery from pancreatitis and prevent its recurrence.

  • Stop drinking alcohol.
  • Stop smoking.
  • Choose a low-fat diet that emphasizes fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein.
  • Drink more fluids.

Pancreatitis Treatments

Treatment for pancreatitis usually involves hospitalization to stabilize your condition and control the inflammation, as well as treat the underlying cause of the pancreatitis.

You will probably fast (stop eating) for a few days to give your pancreas a chance to recover. You will receive nutrition through another method during this time.

You will also likely receive intravenous fluids to treat dehydration that often occurs with pancreatitis.

Pain medications are also important to relieve the discomfort associated with pancreatitis. No specific medications are approved for pancreatitis-related pain, and most pain-relieving medicines are effective. The medication your doctor chooses will be based on your pain level, your overall health, and other medicines you are taking.

Treatment for the underlying cause of pancreatitis may include surgery to remove the gallbladder or pancreas, depending on the cause of the inflammation.

Pancreatitis Other Treatments