The pancreas is an organ that helps with digestion by producing digestive enzymes and insulin that helps your body process sugar. Pancreatitis is the inflammation of this organ and can be classified as acute (sudden onset and can last for days) or chronic (occurs over long periods of time/years).
Pancreatitis occurs when the enzymes produced by this organ are activated inside the pancreas, instead of outside, and causes irritation to the cells leading to inflammation. Repeated instances of acute pancreatitis can lead to damage, chronic pancreatitis and loss of function of the pancreas. Known causes of pancreatitis include: alcoholism, gallstones, some types of medications, complications of abdominal surgery, smoking, cystic fibrosis, family history of pancreatitis, high levels of calcium and/or triglycerides in your blood, infection, injury to your abdomen, or pancreatic cancer.
Symptoms of pancreatitis vary depending on the acute or chronic nature of the condition. Individuals with acute pancreatitis may experience abdominal pain that may radiate to your back or worsen after eating, nausea/vomiting, fever, and fast heart rate. Individuals with chronic pancreatitis may experience abdominal pain, weight loss and oily, foul smelling stool.
Testing performed to diagnose pancreatitis include blood tests to evaluate enzymes, stool studies to evaluate levels of fat dispelled (this may indicate your body is not absorbing food properly), CT scan of your abdomen or ultrasound to evaluate the pancreas and any other cause of pancreatitis including gallstones, or an endoscopic ultrasound to evaluate the level of inflammation and any possible blockages in the pancreatic or bile duct.
Treatment for pancreatitis varies depending on the severity of your symptoms and nature of the disease (acute or chronic). For acute pancreatitis, you may require a stay in the hospital for IV (intravenous) fluids and nutrient support, pain control and testing to evaluate the cause of your condition. If a blockage is found in your bile duct or gallbladder causing the pancreatitis, your physician may perform an Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) that looks at your ducts and, if needed, a stent may be placed to keep the duct from closing and causing your pancreatitis. Some individuals may require surgery to remove the gallbladder, stones within the gallbladder or to drain fluid from your pancreas and remove tissue.