Pancreatitis is a dangerous condition that involves the swelling or inflammation of the pancreas, an organ that produces enzymes necessary to digest food. It is most often caused by long-term alcohol abuse, though genetics may be a factor in some cases. Other conditions that have been linked to chronic pancreatitis include:
- Autoimmune conditions (when the immune system attacks the body)
- Blockage of the pancreatic duct or the common bile duct, the tubes that drain enzymes from the pancreas
- Complications of cystic fibrosis
- High levels of a fat called triglycerides in the blood (hypertriglyceridemia)
- Use of certain medications
Pancreatitis can recur and treating the underlying condition that caused the problem may help prevent future attacks. In all cases, patients are advised to avoid smoking, alcoholic drinks, and fatty foods.
Acute pancreatitis appears suddenly, and the primary symptom is pain in the upper left or middle abdomen. The pain may:
- Become worse within minutes after eating or drinking at first, especially if foods have a high fat content
- Become constant and more severe, lasting for several days
- Be worse when lying flat on the back
- Spread (radiate) to the back or below the left shoulder blade
Other symptoms of acute pancreatitis may include:
- Clay-colored stools
- Gaseous abdominal fullness
- Mild yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)
Repeated attacks of acute pancreatitis may lead to chronic pancreatitis, which can lead to pancreatic scarring and permanent damage.
Treatment of acute pancreatitis often occurs in a hospital and may require pain medication and IV fluids. Food may be restricted to limit the activity of the pancreas. In some cases, doctors may need to:
- Drain fluid that has collected in or around the pancreas
- Remove gallstones
- Relieve blockages of the pancreatic duct
In the most severe cases, surgery is needed to remove dead or infected pancreatic tissue.