What Is Pancreatitis, and What Causes It?

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Pancreatitis has been in the news cycle lately as celebrities like Travis Barker and Maria Menounous have opened up about their health complications with pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer, respectively. Pancreatitis can be a serious and painful experience. The condition occurs when the pancreas (an organ that produces enzymes to help the body digest its food) becomes inflamed, causing stomach pain, nausea, and more.

Unfortunately, because pancreatitis can resemble other conditions like ulcers, gallstones, irritable bowel syndrome, and even pancreatic cancer, research has found that doctors may misdiagnose the condition. But being aware of the causes and the symptoms can be useful in distinguishing the condition and knowing what signs to look out for in your own body.

What Is Pancreatitis?

Your stomach takes in food and your pancreas – a small organ located behind your stomach, next to your small intestine – helps digest it. It releases digestive enzymes to help process food and releases glucagon and insulin that helps your body break down food into energy. “Pancreatitis occurs when digestive enzymes become activated while still in the pancreas, irritating the cells of your pancreas and causing inflammation,” according to the Mayo Clinic.

Pancreatitis can be acute and temporary, which usually happens when your pancreas is recovering from a minor, short-term injury, per Cleveland Clinic. But it can also be chronic. Chronic pancreatitis is a long-term condition that get progressively worse over time.

What Typically Causes Pancreatitis?

Gallstones account for up to 70 percent of cases of acute pancreatitis, according to an UpToDate article written by Santhi Swaroop Vege, MD. Up to 25 percent of acute cases are linked to chronic alcohol overuse. Medications, high triglyceride levels, cystic fibrosis, high calcium levels, infection, and injury are all other possible causes for the issue, reports the Mayo Clinic. While it’s possible for procedures like colonoscopies to cause acute pancreatitis, it’s thought to be very uncommon, according to a case report in The Cureus Journal of Medical Science. It’s possible that during a colonoscopy, the pancreas could undergo some trauma, which would then result in inflammation.

Pancreatitis can also be chronic; this occurs when the acute inflammation has been treated, but the pancreas has sustained damage, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.

What are the Symptoms of Pancreatitis?

According to the Mayo Clinic, the symptoms of acute pancreatitis may include:

  • Upper abdominal pain
  • Abdominal pain that radiates to your back
  • Tenderness when touching the abdomen
  • Fever
  • Rapid pulse
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Chronic pancreatitis sign and symptoms also include upper abdominal pain, in addition to abdominal pain that worsens after eating, unintended weight loss, and oily or smelly stools (aka steatorrhea).

How Is Pancreatitis Treated?

Pancreatitis is serious, and if you think you have it, you should visit your doctor ASAP. Acute attacks might require treatment with medications for the pain, IV fluids to prevent dehydration, a diet of clear liquids and bland food while your pancreas recovers, and sometimes even a feeding tube, reports the Mayo Clinic. Your doctors will also try to determine what caused the episode and treat that to prevent it from happening again – so if gallstones were behind the acute pancreatitis, you may need gallbladder-removal surgery. In the case of chronic pancreatitis, patients may need additional pain-management therapy, digestive-enzyme supplements, and dietary changes.

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