What is pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis describes inflammation in the organ called the pancreas. This organ is located behind your stomach in the upper part of your abdomen. It helps with digestion and lets your body process food into energy. Sometimes this condition can happen suddenly and last for a few days. Sometimes it can exist for years. Sometimes the symptoms go away without treatment. It can also be so severe that it causes death. 

Causes of pancreatitis

Doctors don't know the cause of around 20% of the cases of pancreatitis. However, there are some common known causes that may contribute to pancreatitis. These include:

  • Gallstones
  • Abdomen injuries
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Having abdominal surgery
  • Autoimmune diseases or infections

Risk factors for pancreatitis

Most people suffering from this painful inflammation have gallstones. Also, smoking cigarettes and taking certain medications can increase your risk of getting pancreatitis. About 70% of the cases involve patients who drink heavily. You're also at greater risk for pancreatitis if you've inherited a disorder of the pancreas or have cystic fibrosis. This is a condition that damages your lungs and makes it difficult to breathe.

Symptoms of pancreatitis

The most common symptom of pancreatitis is a sharp pain in the middle to left-hand side of your stomach area. Sometimes you can feel this pain all around your upper body and even your back. This pain might be worse after you eat and when you're lying down. It can last for a few minutes, several hours or even all the time.

Other symptoms of pancreatitis include:

  • Fever
  • Hiccups
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Indigestion and very smelly stool
  • Bloating or swollen stomach region

Diagnosis of pancreatitis

If you're experiencing any of the symptoms of pancreatitis, your doctor will order blood tests. These look for high levels of a byproduct your pancreas makes to break down food. You may need to give a stool sample that your doctor will test for fat. Having extra fat in your stool could mean that your body isn't taking in nutrients like it should. You may get a CT scan or an ultrasound. These tests let your doctor see pictures of the inside of your body. That way, your doctor can look for gallstones, which can have similar symptoms. The doctor might also order an MRI. This is an imaging test that can look for problems with your gallbladder, pancreas or other parts of your organs. 

Treatments for pancreatitis

The first thing your doctor may want to do is get you comfortable, especially if you're experiencing severe pain. You may do this in the hospital. The doctor can give you pain medications and fluids that come from an IV. If your situation is very serious, you may have to go into the intensive care unit. This usually happens if surgery is necessary to remove damaged tissues in your pancreas.

There are several treatments for pancreatitis:

  • Fasting gives your pancreas a rest from digestion. It helps reduce the inflammation in the organ. After a few days, you can consume liquids, eat bland food and eventually return to eating regularly.
  • You may need surgery to remove gallstones. This is a very common procedure. The surgeon only needs to make a very small cut. It takes very little time to heal.
  • Clearing blocked ducts lets bile move where it needs to go. Doctors can open the ducts during surgery with a special tool.

Pancreatitis often results from drinking too much alcohol. Treatment often includes the process of helping people stop drinking. Alcoholism is a condition that can require inpatient or outpatient treatment plans with medical supervision. You might also go to support groups as part of a lifelong recovery process. If you continue to drink, your symptoms and condition can get worse.

Recovery from pancreatitis

If you have long-lasting pancreatitis, you may need pain medications to help you stay comfortable over time. You can also improve your situation by taking enzymes. These help break down the nutrients in your food. Work with a dietician. Eating low-fat, healthy meals reduces the chances for this condition to come back.

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