What is pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis is the redness and swelling (inflammation) of the pancreas. This happens when digestive juices or enzymes attack the pancreas.
The pancreas lies behind your stomach on the left side of your belly or abdomen. It is close to the first part of your small intestine (the duodenum).
The pancreas is a gland. It does 2 main things:
- It makes enzymes and sends them into your small intestine. These enzymes help break down food.
- It makes the hormones insulin and glucagon and sends them into your bloodstream. These hormones control your body’s blood sugar level.
Pancreatitis may be sudden (acute) or ongoing (chronic).
- Is a sudden inflammation
- Lasts for a short time
- Lets the pancreas return to normal afterward
- May cause serious problems or be deadly in severe cases
- Is a long-lasting inflammation that comes and goes over time
- Causes permanent damage to the pancreas
- Often causes scarring of pancreatic tissue
- May cause the pancreas to stop making enzymes and insulin in severe cases
What causes pancreatitis?
The most common causes of pancreatitis include:
- Alcohol abuse
- Lumps of solid material (gallstones) found in the gallbladder. Gallstones block the pancreatic duct so the enzymes can’t get out of the pancreas.
Other causes of pancreatitis include:
- Belly (abdominal) injury or surgery
- High levels of fat particles (triglycerides) in the blood
- Certain medicines, such as estrogens, steroids, and thiazide diuretics
- Infections, such as mumps, hepatitis A or B, or salmonella
- Cystic fibrosis
- A tumor
What are the symptoms of pancreatitis?
Each person’s symptoms may vary. Symptoms may include:
- Severe belly or abdominal pain that may spread to your back or chest (it may feel worse after you eat)
- Rapid heart rate
- Swelling and feeling sore or tender in your upper belly or abdomen
- Fluid buildup in your belly
- Lowered blood pressure
- Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
The symptoms of pancreatitis may look like other health problems. Always see your health care provider to be sure.
How is pancreatitis diagnosed?
Your health care provider will look at your past health. He or she will give you a physical exam.
You may have some blood tests done. You may also have some imaging tests including:
Belly or abdominal X-ray. Makes images of internal tissues, bones, and organs.
Ultrasound (also called sonography). Uses sound waves to see the internal organs of the belly or abdomen. It also checks how blood is flowing through different blood vessels.
ERCP or endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography. This is used to find and treat problems in your liver, gallbladder, bile ducts, and pancreas. It uses X-ray and a long, flexible tube with a light and camera at one end (an endoscope). The tube is put into your mouth and throat. It goes down your food pipe (esophagus), through your stomach, and into the first part of your small intestine (duodenum). A dye is put your bile ducts through the tube. The dye lets the bile ducts be seen clearly on X-rays.
CT scan (computed tomography scan). This imaging test shows detailed images of any part of the body such as the bones, muscles, fat, and organs. CT scans are more detailed than regular X-rays.
MRCP (magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography). This uses MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to make detailed images of your pancreas, gallbladder, and pancreatic and bile ducts. A dye is shot (injected) into your vein so that the images can be seen more clearly.
How is pancreatitis treated?
The treatment goal is to rest the pancreas and let it heal.
In most cases you:
- Will be in the hospital for a few days
- Will be given IV (intravenous) fluids
- Will be given pain medicine, and medicines that fight bacterial infections (antibiotics)
- Won’t be able to eat or drink for a few days to let your pancreas rest
Pancreatitis often gets better in a few days.
If any problems occur, treatment depends on the type of problem. Treatment may include:
NG tube (nasogastric tube). This is a thin tube passed down your nose and into your stomach. It is used if vomiting is a problem. The tube can be used for a few weeks. It can take out fluid and air and give your pancreas more time to heal. It can also be used to put liquid food into your stomach as you heal.
ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography). This is used to find and treat problems in your liver, gallbladder, bile ducts, and pancreas. It uses X-ray and a long, flexible, lighted tube (an endoscope). The tube is put into your mouth and throat. It goes down your food pipe (esophagus), through your stomach, and into the first part of your small intestine (duodenum). A dye is injected into the bile ducts through the tube. The dye lets the bile ducts be seen clearly on X-rays. The tube has tools in it. The tools can remove fluid and blockages and take out gallstones. They can also put stents (firm tubes) in the ducts to keep them open.
Dialysis or a kidney transplant. May be needed if your kidneys stop working.
Surgery to remove gallstones or your gallbladder. This is done if gallstones or your gallbladder are causing pancreatitis.
If you have chronic pancreatitis you may also:
- Have to avoid alcohol (if your pancreatitis is caused by alcohol abuse)
- Have to stop smoking
- Need enzyme supplements to help digest your food
- Need insulin (if you get diabetes)
- Need to eat small high-protein, low-fat meals
- Need surgery to remove the permanently damaged part of your pancreas
What are the complications of pancreatitis?
Acute pancreatitis usually gets better on its own over time. Most people recover without any problems.
Chronic pancreatitis may also get better on its own. But that can take longer, after a few attacks. Chronic pancreatitis has a greater risk of long-term problems such as:
- Chronic pain
- Weight loss
- A collection of fluid (pseudocyst) around the pancreas
- Bile duct blockages
- Permanent pancreas damage
Key points about pancreatitis
- Pancreatitis is the redness and swelling (inflammation) of the pancreas.
- It may be sudden (acute) or ongoing (chronic).
- The most common causes are alcohol abuse and lumps of solid material (gallstones) in the gallbladder.
- The goal for treatment is to rest the pancreas and let it heal.
- You will likely be in the hospital for a few days.
- You may need surgery to remove the permanently damaged part of the pancreas.
Next stepsTips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:
- Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
- Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
- At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you.
- If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
- Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.