What is the pancreas?

The pancreas is part of the digestive system and it helps break down food. You should eat lean meat, fish, vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains and other low-fat foods when you are recovering from pancreatitis.
The pancreas is part of the digestive system and it helps break down food. You should eat lean meat, fish, vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains and other low-fat foods when you are recovering from pancreatitis.

Having a healthy pancreas is crucial for good health. Your pancreas is part of your digestive system and is responsible for the enzymes that let you break down food. It also produces hormones that regulate several body functions.

Your pancreas makes three enzymes:

  • Lipase that helps to break down fats
  • Protease that helps with proteins
  • Amylase that breaks down starches in your diet

It also makes four hormones:

  • Insulin helps you regulate blood sugar and use it for energy
  • Glucagon tells your liver to release sugar when your levels get too low
  • Amylin helps to control appetite and regulate stomach emptying
  • Gastrin tells your stomach lining to produce gastric acid

If your pancreas isn't working properly, it can become inflamed or prevent you from absorbing all the nutrients your body needs. Pancreatitis is one of the problems your pancreas can develop, and it can have serious effects on your health. 

What is pancreatitis? 

Pancreatitis is a medical condition that develops due to an inflamed pancreas . This inflammation can be very painful, and in some cases, abdominal pain can build in intensity over just a few minutes. In pancreatitis, your digestive enzymes become activated too soon and begin to damage the inside of the pancreas. 

There are two types of pancreatitis:

  • Acute pancreatitis comes on suddenly or over several days but is considered a short-term medical issue. Most cases of acute pancreatitis are mild and clear up with treatment, but some people can develop a severe case that can be life-threatening. 
  • Chronic pancreatitis develops over many years due to regular inflammation of your pancreas. Each reoccurrence of acute pancreatitis damages your pancreas and can lead to permanent scarring. Over time, this damage can lead to complications and increase your risks of diabetes or pancreatic cancer.

Who is at risk for pancreatitis?

Anyone can get pancreatitis, but having certain medical conditions can increase your risks. You're more likely to develop pancreatitis if you have one of these conditions or concerns:

Symptoms of pancreatitis

The symptoms of pancreatitis are similar whether acute or chronic. You may experience one or more of these symptoms:

Remedies for pancreatitis

There are several remedies and treatments for pancreatitis, and they are typically provided in a medical setting, either at the hospital or at your doctor's office.

Pancreatitis treatments

  • Antibiotics or antivirals
  • IV fluids
  • Pain medications
  • Feeding tube or intravenous catheter
  • Gallbladder surgery for gallstones
  • Pancreas surgery for flushing and removing dead tissue
  • Pancreatic enzymes
  • Insulin for treating diabetes

You may need to be hospitalized

Although many people get a milder form of pancreatitis, they may still need at least an overnight stay in the hospital to make sure they're responding to treatment. Pancreatitis can lead to various complications such as new infections, pancreatic tissue death, fluid-filled cysts, or organ failure. 

If you have mild to moderate pancreatitis, you may receive intravenous (IV) fluids, pain medication, and a low-fat, soft food diet once it's safe for you to eat. If you have nausea and vomiting, you may receive a feeding tube to help you eat.

If you have moderate to severe pancreatitis, you may experience a longer hospital stay in the intensive care unit (ICU). You will receive IV fluids and your care team will monitor your blood pressure, oxygen levels, and pulse. You may have several blood and urine tests to check for infections and general blood health. Feeding tubes or intravenous nutrition can help you get the nutrients your body needs.

Foods for a pancreatitis diet

Usually, doctors recommend that you avoid foods for a few days to let your pancreas rest. Once they give you the okay to resume eating, you should try to eat low-fat foods to avoid more discomfort and pain.

Try to include the following types of foods:

  • Lean-meat proteins
  • White fish or canned fish
  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Beans and lentils
  • Whole grains
  • Low-fat dairy
  • Fresh herbs and spices
  • Tomato-based sauces

You should try to avoid eating food higher in fats, even if they are healthy foods:

  • Avocado
  • Olive oil
  • Fatty fish
  • Nuts and seeds
  • High-fat red meats
  • Cream and full-fat milk
  • Butter
  • Frozen and ready-made meals
  • Mayonnaise and oil dressings
  • Sugary drinks

Risks and outlook

Some people are at risk of developing serious complications, either with repeat pancreatitis or with severe cases. You could develop potential complications such as:

  • Necrotizing pancreatitis, or tissue death in your pancreas
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Malnutrition
  • Organ failure, such as kidney, lungs, or heart failure
  • Pseudocysts, or fluid-filled cysts that can rupture and bleed

Lifestyle changes and recovering from pancreatitis

Once you're on the road to recovery from pancreatitis, your doctor will likely recommend that you make several lifestyle changes. Making these changes can help to reduce your chances for developing pancreatitis again. It can also help to lessen your risks for serious complications.

Try to make the following changes:

Speak to your doctor if any of your symptoms return or worsen. Pancreatitis can often resolve with proper treatment, letting you get back to life without discomfort.

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Pancreatitis symptoms, causes, treatments, and tests

Pancreatitis is a condition in which the pancreas develops swelling due to the destruction of the pancreatic tissue by its own enzymes. Digestive enzymes travel from the pancreas to the small intestine through the pancreatic duct. Usually, they are not activated until they reach the small intestine, but if the pancreatic duct is blocked, the enzymes become trapped and get accumulated in the pancreas. Eventually, these enzymes become activated while still in the pancreas and begin irritating the tissue of the pancreas, causing inflammation, bleeding, and damage to the pancreas. There are two types of pancreatitis that are as follows:

  • Acute pancreatitis: It is a sudden inflammation of the pancreas that results in extreme abdominal pain, and it usually reduces on its own within one week. 
  • Chronic pancreatitis: It is a long-term condition that impairs the functioning of the pancreas. It affects the body’s ability to digest food and other functions.

What are the common symptoms of pancreatitis?

The most common symptom of pancreatitis is severe upper stomach pain that may radiate to the back or chest and may feel worse after eating or drinking alcohol.

Typical signs and symptoms of acute pancreatitis include:

  1. Pain in the stomach (belly)
  2. Nausea
  3. Vomiting
  4. Fever
  5. Dehydration
  6. Rapid heartbeat
  7. Abdominal tenderness
  8. Skin discoloration around the navel (belly button)

Symptoms of chronic pancreatitis include:

  1. Unintentional weight loss
  2. Bloating
  3. Diarrhea
  4. Jaundice
  5. Decreased ability to produce insulin
  6. Indigestion
  7. Oily or smelly stools
  8. Fluid buildup in the abdominal cavity
  9. Dropping blood pressure
  10. Hypoxia and lung failure (breathing problems)
  11. Kidney failure

What are the common causes of pancreatitis?

The most common cause of acute pancreatitis is the presence of stones in the gallbladder, which can block the enzymes flowing from the pancreatic duct to the small intestine. Other causes of acute pancreatitis include:

  1. Family history of pancreatitis
  2. Gallbladder stones
  3. Recurrent exposure to chemicals
  4. High-fat levels in the blood or a high-fat diet
  5. Excessive alcohol consumption
  6. Severe injury or recent abdominal procedure
  7. Hereditary diseases
  8. Severe infections such as mumps or lupus
  9. Congenital (by birth) abnormality of the pancreas or intestine
  10. Excessive exposure to smoking
  11. Cancer of the pancreas
  12. A venomous sting from a scorpion
  13. Side effects of medications
  14. High levels of calcium in the blood
  15. Cystic fibrosis (a hereditary disease characterized by the buildup of abnormally thick, sticky mucus in the lungs and other organs)
  16. Drug allergies such as an allergy to penicillin or codeine

What are the common tests to diagnose pancreatitis?

Common tests to diagnose pancreatitis include:

  1. Various blood tests: Blood tests may be ordered by the doctor to know the levels of digestive enzymes in the blood such as amylase and lipase. The doctor may also check for blood sugar levels, triglycerideslipids, and fats in the blood. Blood tests also help in identifying signs of an infection or inflammation of the bile ducts, pancreas, gallbladder, or liver and pancreatic cancer.
  2. Stool tests: Stool samples may determine fat malabsorption.
  3. Imaging tests: Ultrasound; computed tomography (CT) scans of the pancreas, gallbladder, and bile ducts; and magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP) create pictures of the organs and soft tissues to determine abnormalities in the pancreas.
  4. Endoscopic ultrasoundThe doctor may insert a thin, flexible tube down the throat, through your stomach, and into your small intestine. The doctor then turns on an ultrasound attachment to create pictures of your pancreas and bile ducts. 
  5. Pancreatic function test (PFT): The doctor may use this test to measure how the pancreas responds to secretin, a hormone produced by the small intestine. 

What are the treatment options for pancreatitis?

The common treatment for pancreatitis includes:

  1. A hospital stay to treat dehydration with intravenous (IV) fluids or with oral rehydration therapy
  2. Pain medicine and antibiotics by mouth or through an IV if an infection is detected in the pancreas
  3. A low-fat diet or nutrition by a feeding tube or IV if the patient is unable to eat
  4. Rest and treatment for mild pancreatitis
  5. Enzyme pills and vitamins to help with digestion and treat malabsorption
  6. Cholecystectomy (surgery to remove the gallbladder)
  7. Draining fluid from the abdomen or removing the damaged tissue from the pancreas

Endoscopic cholangiopancreatography (ERCP): Doctors use ERCP to treat both acute and chronic pancreatitis. ERCP combines upper gastrointestinal endoscopy and X-rays to treat narrowing or blockage of bile or pancreatic duct. They are also used to remove gallstones blocking the bile or pancreatic ducts.

Surgeons may also perform surgery to remove the whole pancreas and may transplant islets from the pancreas into the liver. The islets will begin to produce hormones and release them into your bloodstream.

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Medically Reviewed on 4/5/2022
References
SOURCES:

American Gastroenterological Association: "Pancreatitis."

Cleveland Clinic: "The Best (and Worst) Foods for Pancreatitis Pain."

Johns Hopkins Medicine: "The Digestive Process: What Is the Role of Your Pancreas in Digestion?” Merck Manual: "Acute Pancreatitis."

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Definition & Facts for Pancreatitis."

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Symptoms & Causes of Pancreatitis."

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Treatment for Pancreatitis."

WebMD: "Pancreatitis."