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Understanding Pancreatitis

Outline of torso showing liver and stomach with cross section of gallbladder with stones.

If your pancreas suddenly becomes irritated or inflamed, you have acute pancreatitis. Acute pancreatitis is often very painful. Emergency medical treatment is usually needed. Chronic pancreatitis is a condition where your pancreas remains inflamed. It can lead to pain and other complications. 

Symptoms of acute pancreatitis

Symptoms include:

  • Severe pain in your upper belly radiating to your back

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Belly swelling and tenderness

  • Fever

  • Rapid pulse

  • Shallow, fast breathing

Treating acute pancreatitis

If you have acute pancreatitis, you may be in the hospital for a few days. For part of this time, you likely won’t be allowed to eat or drink. This lets your pancreas rest and heal. If your pancreatitis is severe, you may get nutrition and fluids through a feeding tube inserted into your belly. Medicines are given to help ease any pain.

Causes of pancreatitis

Gallstones are one of the most common causes of pancreatitis. These hard stones form in the gallbladder, an organ located near the pancreas. These 2 organs share a passage into the small intestine called the common bile duct. Fluid can't leave the pancreas, though, if gallstones block this duct. The fluid backs up and causes pancreatitis. Alcohol is also an very common cause of pancreatitis. Certain medicines, trauma, and infection can also cause pancreatitis. Problems with the structure of the pancreas may also be a cause. There are also genetic problems that can cause pancreatitis. 

If you have chronic pancreatitis

If the pancreas stays inflamed for a long time, chronic pancreatitis may result. Common symptoms include diarrhea, weight loss, and belly pain. Possible complications of chronic pancreatitis include the following:

  • Diabetes

  • Not absorbing enough nutrients (malnutrition)

  • Pancreatic cancer (rare)

  • Chronic diarrhea

  • Chronic pain

Treatment for chronic pancreatitis includes the following:

  • Medicines to help the pancreas work (enzymes) and to manage pain

  • Dietary changes

  • Stop smoking

  • Treatment for gallstones

  • Don't drink alcohol. The most important thing you can do is to avoid alcohol and smoking to help manage this disease. 

Online Medical Reviewer: Jen Lehrer MD
Online Medical Reviewer: John Hanrahan MD
Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 6/1/2019
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