You Wanted to Know: Pancreatitis

Young woman in pain

Acute pancreatitis is usually hard to miss, with severe abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and often a fever. It’s also important not to miss it, since leaving it untreated could lead to dangerous complications and even death. Plus, in some people, pancreatitis may cause inflammation that does not heal or that may worsen over time, leading to chronic pancreatitis. One of my viewers asked me about ways to avoid this painful disease: 

pancreatitis

The pancreas is a long, skinny gland that sits in the upper abdomen near your stomach and produces enzymes and hormones that your body needs to digest food and keep your blood sugar stable. Normally, the pancreas sends out these digestive enzymes through ducts to the small intestine, where they help digest food. Pancreatitis occurs when the enzymes normally meant for digesting food instead turn on your own pancreas and cause irritation and inflammation. Sounds pretty uncomfortable, right?

Usually, someone with acute pancreatitis will experience sudden pain in the middle of their upper abdomen, which may radiate to the back in about 50% of cases. The pain may be sharp or a constant dull ache and can escalate suddenly or over a few days. Eating may worsen the pain. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, lack of appetite, abdominal tenderness and a fever of 100.4 or higher are all common symptoms that may accompany the pain. Sometimes, jaundice may develop and the whites of the eyes can turn yellow. With chronic pancreatitis, scar tissue may form in the pancreas and over time it may stop functioning.

Pancreatitis has a variety of causes, but the most common by far are gallstones and alcohol. The top cause is gallstones, which can get stuck in the small ducts and cause a blockage that leads to pancreatitis. Another very common cause of acute pancreatitis is alcohol use, usually heavy drinking over a long period of time. Symptoms can start within hours or several days of someone’s last drink. Cigarette smoking has been shown to increase pancreatitis risk, as have certain medications like opiate painkillers or some antibiotics. Tumors, abdominal surgeries, cystic fibrosis, or certain procedures like ERCPs used to treat gallstones may also lead to pancreatitis. In about 15% of cases, no cause is ever identified.

As you can see, not all causes of pancreatitis can be avoided. But if gallstones are causing the pancreatitis, treating them will usually resolve the problem. It’s important to see a doctor for any recurrent or constant abdominal pain you have, particularly if it happens after meals or in the upper right quadrant of your abdomen – this could be a sign of gallstones that might lead to pancreatitis if not nipped in the bud. Eating a healthy, low-fat, whole-grain diet with at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day and maintaining a healthy weight can help you reduce your risk for gallstones that might lead to pancreatitis.

Eating foods rich in vitamins can also help keep your pancreas healthy – look for foods rich in vitamins A, C and E and selenium and carotenoids. Quitting smoking and limiting your alcohol intake is a very important way to lower your risk. Generally, a good rule to follow is that women should have no more than one drink a day and men no more than two. People prone to pancreatitis should avoid alcohol entirely.

Be sure to get medical attention right away if you think you could have pancreatitis.