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(Chronic Pancreatitis; Acute Pancreatitis)

by Swedish Staff and Contributors

Symptoms of Pancreatitis
Pancreatitis Defined
What Causes Pancreatitis
Risk Factors

Symptoms of Pancreatitis

Symptoms of pancreatitis can include:

  • Pain in the center of your upper abdomen that’s severe and:
    • Sometimes spreads to your upper back
    • Is made worse by lying on your back, walking or eating
    • Is less severe in chronic pancreatitis, with a gradual onset of symptoms that may be tolerable for weeks
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever
  • aundice—yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes
  • Shock—a severe change in your body's vital functions such as low blood pressure, rapid, but weak pulse, rapid and shallow respiration. (Severe, acute cases of pancreatitis)
  • Weight loss that’s unexplained
  • Symptoms of diabetes including increased thirst and urination, and fatigue

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Pancreatitis Defined

Pancreatitis is a disease that causes your pancreas to become inflamed. The pancreas is a long, flat, pear-shaped organ located behind your stomach that makes digestive enzymes and hormones, including insulin. When you have pancreatitis, the digestive enzymes attack the tissue that produces them.

  • Acute pancreatitis—This occurs suddenly, with severe upper abdominal pain. If not treated, this can be a serious, life-threatening illness.
  • Chronic pancreatitis—This is a progressive disorder that can destroy your pancreas.


Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

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What Causes Pancreatitis

Causes of pancreatitis can include:

  • Alcohol abuse (most common cause)
  • Gallstones and other obstructions
  • Surgery or trauma to your pancreas
  • Certain medications
  • Elevated blood triglyceride levels (hypertriglyceridemia)
  • Infections such as HIV 
  • A defective pancreas duct (pancreas divisum)
  • Complication of endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP)

Approximately 15 percent of pancreatitis cases have no known cause.

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A physical exam is needed to diagnose pancreatitis. Your doctor will ask about your medical history, any symptoms you may be experiencing, how much alcohol you drink and what medications you take. The following tests may be done to diagnose pancreatitis:

  • Blood tests—These tests measure levels of certain digestive enzymes. Blood tests will also check for obstructions and complications of pancreatitis such as kidney failure, diabetes or infection.
  • Abdominal ultrasound or abdominal CT scan—These radiology tests look for gallstones and can help determine the severity of pancreatic inflammation.
  • Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP)—A radiology test (MRI) that produces images of your pancreas, pancreatic duct and nearby bile ducts.
  • ERCP—This procedure uses endoscopy and X-rays to determine damage from pancreatitis and diagnose problems related to the pancreatic and biliary ducts.

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Acute Pancreatitis

Treatment for acute pancreatitis depends on the severity of the attack. You may need to be hospitalized. Resting the pancreas is important. In mild cases of acute pancreatitis, you may not eat for 3-4 days. In severe cases, you may not be able to eat for 3-6 weeks. You will likely need to take strong pain medications during this time.

Treatment for acute pancreatitis may also include:

  • IV fluids
  • IV nutrients if you’re unable to eat for a long period of time
  • Antibiotics if you have an infection
  • Surgery to drain excess fluid from your abdomen

Chronic Pancreatitis

Providing pain relief and managing nutritional and metabolic problems are the main goals when treating chronic pancreatitis. Specific steps include:

  • No alcohol consumption
  • Eating smaller meals more frequently and eating less fat
  • Taking pills containing pancreatic enzymes to help with digestion
  • Taking insulin to control blood sugar (if diabetes develops)
  • Taking pain medicine for severe pain. You may want to see your doctor.

Surgery and/or ERCP may be needed to:

  • Open a blocked pancreatic or biliary duct
  • Remove part of the pancreas (in rare instances all of the pancreas may be removed)
  • Drain pancreatic cysts

Follow your doctor's instructions if you are diagnosed with pancreatitis

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Risk Factors    

Risk factors that can increase your chance of developing pancreatitis include:

  • Alcohol abuse
  • Family history of pancreatitis
  • Personal history of previous acute pancreatitis
  • Medicines, including:
    • Estrogens
    • Sulfonamides
    • Tetracyclines
    • Thiazides
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Hyperlipidemia (excessive fat in your blood)
  • Hypercalcemia (increased calcium in your blood)
  • Viral infections such as mumps

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To prevent pancreatitis, limit how much alcohol you consume to two drinks or less per day for men and one drink or less per day for women. If you have hyperlipidemia, restrict your intake of fat and follow your doctor’s treatment plan to lower your lipids. Get vaccinated against mumps.

This content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Swedish.