What is pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis is the inflammation of the pancreas, which is a gland found behind the stomach. The pancreas is key to the digestion of food, through the production of certain enzymes as well as the production of hormones that aid in the processing of blood glucose levels. There are two types of pancreatitis; acute and chronic. Acute pancreatitis is when the pancreas becomes inflamed suddenly. Chronic pancreatitis is when the pancreas becomes permanently damaged due to inflammation of the pancreas over many years.

What are the symptoms of pancreatitis?

The symptoms of acute pancreatitis include:

  • Sudden abdominal pain
  • Fever
  • Diarrhoea
  • Nausea & vomiting

The symptoms of chronic pancreatitis include:

  • Repeated, and often severe abdominal pain (sometimes accompanied by nausea)
  • Oily, bad-smelling stools

If you experience frequent abdominal pain, it is important to see a specialist.

What causes pancreatitis?

Acute pancreatitis is thought to occur when digestive enzymes activate whilst still in the pancreas, causing irritation of the pancreatic cells and hence inflammation. Acute pancreatitis has also been linked to both gallstones, alcohol consumption, infections, and some medications.

Chronic pancreatitis has largely been attributed to long-term alcohol abuse, smoking, hereditary genetic mutations and immune system problems.

In some cases, the cause for a pancreatitis diagnosis is never confirmed.

How is pancreatitis diagnosed?

There are a number of tests used to make a diagnosis, such as:

  • Blood tests to check for enzyme levels in the pancreas.
  • Stool tests to measure fat levels. Oily stools can indicate that there are problems with the digestive system.
  • MRI or CT scans to check for gallstones.

What is the treatment for pancreatitis?

Treatment for acute pancreatitis looks to support bodily functions until inflammation has subsided. The first step in treating acute pancreatitis is to let the pancreas heal, and for the inflammation to subside. To do so, you must be treated in hospital where you will receive intravenous fluids to replace lost fluids, and medicines to manage pain. Fasting for a few days also helps the pancreas to recover.

Once the pancreas has recovered, doctors can get to work on treating the underlying cause of pancreatitis. Frequently, such additional treatments can include:

  • Pancreas surgery – sometimes it is necessary to either remove damaged pancreatic tissue, or to drain excess fluid from the pancreas.
  • Gallbladder surgery – removing the gallbladder may be necessary if gallstones are the cause of your pancreatitis.
  • Treating alcohol dependency – if alcohol abuse is the cause of your pancreatitis, then you may be entered into an alcohol addiction program.

For those suffering from chronic pancreatitis, then further treatments might be needed, including:

  • Lifestyle changes – adopting a low-fat, nutritious diet, avoiding alcohol and stopping smoking tends to show the best results for people suffering from chronic pancreatitis.
  • Enzyme supplements – these assist in the digestion of food and can be taken with each meal.
  • Pain medication – chronic pancreatitis causes continual abdominal pain, so managing this pain is often needed.