Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas. Inflammation can be caused by many different reasons. but the majority of acute pancreatitis cases in the U.S. are from alcohol use and bile duct stones.
Pancreatitis can either be acute or chronic.
Acute pancreatitis happens suddenly and can last for 48 – 72 hours. Cases may be life-threatening or only uncomfortable, but any case requires hospitalization. Almost all cases can be medically treated and patients normally make full recoveries.
Heavy alcohol consumption is a frequent cause of pancreatitis. Prolonged alcohol use results in cell damage and tissue scarring. Other common causes of pancreatitis include gallstones, hereditary disorders, cystic fibrosis, or injury to the abdomen.
However, sometimes the cause of pancreatitis cannot be identified.
SYMPTOMS OF ACUTE PANCREATITIS
Acute cases of pancreatitis show severe symptoms, such as:
- Abdominal pain and tenderness, possibly getting more severe after eating;
- Increased heart rate.
Chronic pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas that worsens over time. Chronic cases can develop over several years.
Chronic pancreatitis signs and symptoms include:
- Abdominal pain - this can vary from sudden and severe to constant with episodes of worsening abdominal pain;
- Unexplained weight loss;
- Fatty stool and diarrhea.
DIAGNOSING ACUTE AND CHRONIC PANCREATITIS
The gastroenterologist will perform particular tests based on individual cases. Possible tests include the following:
- Blood tests: the doctor looks for levels of pancreatic enzymes that are higher than normal;
- Stool tests: for chronic pancreatitis victims, measuring levels of fat could show if the digestive system is not absorbing nutrients normally;
- Computerized tomography (CT) scan: the doctor can find gallstones and examine the amount of pancreas inflammation;
- Ultrasound: the doctor can examine the inflammation in the pancreas;
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): the doctor can find abnormalities in the gallbladder, pancreas, or bile ducts.
TREATMENT OPTIONS FOR PANCREATITIS
The gastroenterologist may treat and control the inflammation before finding the root cause of a patient’s pancreatitis. Treatments to control pancreatic inflammation can include:
- Fasting: The patient will not eat for 24 – 48 hours so the inflammation in the pancreas can calm down. Clear liquids and bland foods will be allowed while the gastroenterologist examines the pancreas for the root cause of the pancreatitis.
- Pain medications: Abdominal pain can be temporarily relieved while the inflammation is treated.
- Intravenous (IV) fluids: Dehydration may occur while the pancreas needs extra fluids to heal, so IV fluids may be transmitted through the patient’s arm.
As the gastroenterologist monitors the pancreas’s healing and brings the inflammation under control, the root cause of the pancreatitis may be treated with the following procedures:
- Diet changes: a dietitian can recommend a low-fat diet that consists of foods more easily digested and high in nutrients, to prevent malnutrition and promote regular digestion.
- Enzymes to improve digestion: the doctor may prescribe tablets containing pancreatic enzymes in order to ease digestion.
- Pain management: if chronic pancreatitis is not life-threatening, the doctor may prescribe medications to relieve abdominal pain.
- Endoscopy to remove bile duct obstructions.
- Gallbladder surgery: the gallbladder may need to be removed if it is causing recurrent attacks of pancreatitis.
- Pancreas surgery: surgery may be necessary if fluid or damaged tissue is building up in the pancreas.
- Therapy for alcohol dependence.