Feeling pain in any part of the body is worrisome. It’s one thing when you’ve actually been injured. You can tell your doctor that you suffered from a hard blow, a fall, or a car accident. But when the discomfort seems to come out of nowhere, your imagination can run rampant with possible scenarios. Is it possible that it’s nothing and you should just wait it out to see if it goes away on its own? Could it be a serious illness?
What is Pancreatitis?
The pancreas is a long, thin organ located behind the stomach, in the upper left side of the abdomen. It produces enzymes to aid in digestion. If the pancreas becomes inflamed, the condition is known as pancreatitis.
Causes of Pancreatitis
Pancreatitis can be caused by several factors:
- Stones in the gallbladder
- Injuries to the abdomen
- High triglyceride levels in the blood
- Autoimmune disease
- Pancreatic cancer
- Cystic fibrosis
- Abdominal surgeries
Types of Pancreatitis
Acute pancreatitis is when the inflammation lasts for only a short period of time. It’s usually a result of gallstones, cystic fibrosis, or excessive alcohol consumption. If the inflammation is caused by alcohol intake, the pain will start gradually and worsen as the days go by.
Chronic pancreatitis is when the damage to the pancreas is so extensive, inflammation lasts for a long time, or symptoms keep recurring.
Symptoms of Pancreatitis
Symptoms of pancreatitis can vary from one person to the next. Some people will have very mild symptoms, while others may feel debilitating pain that interferes with their daily life. These signs include the following:
- Pain on the upper left side of the abdomen
- Pain increases after meals
- Swollen abdomen
- Tenderness when touching the abdomen
- Pain that radiates to the back
- Rapid heart rate
- Rapid pulse
- Lightheadedness when standing up
If the condition is chronic, additional symptoms include:
- Oily stools
- Heightened unpleasant smell to stool
- Weight loss
Sudden movements, deep breaths, and coughing may worsen the pain. After vomiting, there may still be an urge to throw up even after emptying the stomach, resulting in dry heaves.
Complications of Pancreatitis
Pancreatitis can cause the following complications:
- Toxins entering the bloodstream. Pancreatitis can cause toxins to enter the bloodstream. This can cause damage to the heart, lungs, and kidneys.
- Kidney failure. This is more likely to happen in older patients. While a person with acute pancreatitis has about a 16% chance of renal failure, when this does happen, the prognosis has an 80% mortality rate.
- Necrotized tissue. When the condition is severe, pancreatic tissue can necrotize, causing bacteria to infiltrate the bloodstream. This causes reduced blood flow to the organs and life-threatening septic shock.
- Pancreatic pseudocysts. Pancreatitis can cause fluid-filled sacs to form on the pancreas and abdominal cavity. If one of these sacs ruptures, the patient can vomit blood, feel weak, or lose consciousness.
- Diabetes. Pancreatitis can cause damage to the cells that produce insulin. These cells control the amount of sugar in the blood.
Diagnosis and Treatment for Pancreatitis
Your medical provider will ask detailed questions about your symptoms, examine the abdominal area for swelling or tenderness, and run blood tests. The doctor may also order imaging tests to confirm the diagnosis.
If pancreatitis is mild, it can go away on its own. However, due to its potential for serious complications (some of them fatal), always seek medical attention if you are experiencing symptoms of the condition.
Treatment options depend on the severity of pancreatitis. For a mild condition, patients require a short hospitalization, intravenous fluids, analgesics, and soft foods low in fat content.
Moderate pancreatitis requires a longer hospitalization, along with a complete avoidance of food. Meals and medications are administered intravenously. The doctor may also prescribe antibiotics.
Severe pancreatitis will keep a patient in an Intensive Care Unit (ICU). Regular blood tests will be run to examine white blood cell count and electrolytes. Depending on the extent of damage, the patient may need a ventilator.
If medication and conservative treatment does not result in improvement, surgery may be necessary to remove portions of the pancreas or drain pseudocysts.
Preventing pancreatitis requires lifestyle changes:
Eat healthy. Limit fried foods, since it’s difficult for your body to digest trans fats. These trans fats not only increases the risk of pancreatitis, but also of heart disease and diabetes.
Limit alcohol intake. Excessive consumption of alcohol is the cause of about 70% of pancreatitis cases.
Quit smoking. Smoking makes pancreatitis progress at a faster rate and increases the risk of pancreatic cancer.