Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas. Your pancreas is a fleshy organ located in the center of your gut. The pancreas’s job is to make digestive chemicals to turn whatever you eat into something that can be absorbed. Your pancreas also produces insulin.
If you have pancreatitis, your pancreas becomes inflamed to the point where it releases chemicals on yourself and auto-digests itself, which is why it’s as painful as it is and can be life-threatening. Basically, you’re getting a third-degree burn in the very center of your gut.
Symptoms of pancreatitis
The signs of pancreatitis include:
- Severe nausea
- Sharp, unrelenting pain that goes through your abdomen straight through to your back
- May have fever, but not always
- May have constipation, but not always
It’s recommended that you get an immediate medical evaluation if there’s a suspicion of pancreatitis, because you may look perfectly healthy and be feeling fine, and then get very sick very quickly.
Causes of pancreatitis
There are three primary causes of pancreatitis: medications, gallstones and alcohol.
The pancreas is particularly sensitive to alcohol. A single bout of binge drinking can bring about an attack of pancreatitis in an otherwise healthy person. If your pancreatitis is due to heavy or binge drinking, you’ll have to give up alcohol—for the rest of your life.
According to the National Institutes of Health, alcohol damages pancreatic cells and influences metabolic processes involving insulin. When you drink heavily, you put your pancreas at risk. Nationally, alcoholism and alcohol abuse is “the single most common cause of chronic pancreatitis,” according to the NIH, responsible for between 40% and 70% of cases.
Once you’ve had pancreatitis brought on by drinking, you’re more susceptible to getting it again. Once an initial bout of pancreatitis set off by alcohol consumption, any time you drink alcohol you are prone to getting pancreatitis again.
Gallstones, in some cases, can block the interconnection of drainage tubes that lead to your small bowel, causing a backup to your pancreas. Because your pancreatic chemicals can’t be released through your urine, they’ll start auto-digesting your pancreas.
A plethora of medications can have as their side effects inflammation of the pancreas, including:
- Blood pressure medicines
- Chemotherapy drugs
Two types of pancreatitis
There are two types of pancreatitis—acute and chronic.
Acute pancreatitis has a beginning and an end. It often shows up with abdominal pain that doubles you over or severe nausea, and is confirmed with an abnormal imaging scan. It’s usually caused by alcohol or medicine.
With chronic pancreatitis, your pancreas continues to:
- Function improperly
- Produce the wrong chemicals
- Send chemicals down your pancreatic tube
With chronic pancreatitis, you’re in a persistent state of irritation of the pancreas and lifelong pain. You have the prolonged inability to absorb nutrients from your food.
The majority of people with acute pancreatitis do not end up with chronic pancreatitis. The way you end up with chronic pancreatitis is if you have multiple bouts of acute pancreatitis, which is why it’s so important to find out the cause of it—whether it’s alcohol, gallstones or medications.
Treatment of pancreatitis
Treatment for pancreatitis is simple: Don’t eat anything. When we eat, we stimulate the pancreas to make more digestive chemicals, and you want to avoid that, because you’d be burning a further hole in your gut.
Treatment for pancreatitis requires hospitalization. You’ll be given IV fluids for several days or up to a week as your pancreas calms down and heals. Most people respond well to this treatment and will not need chronic pancreatic enzyme replacement, special diets or special medications.
Your physician will run a series of tests to determine whether the cause of your pancreatitis is alcohol, gallstones or medication. Then you’ll be instructed in what lifestyle modifications you’ll need to make, if any.
If pancreatitis is left untreated
If your pancreatitis is untreated, it can cause such severe dehydration from your body trying to put out the chemical fire in your gut that you can end up with multi-organ failure. You could end up with cardiac, pulmonary and kidney failure as a result.
It’s important to get care quickly if you think you’re experiencing pancreatitis. You’ll have the best chance at recovery if you’re treated within the first 24 hours. If you are experiencing symptoms of pancreatitis, head to your nearest emergency room or urgent care center.