Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas. There are two types of pancreatitis: acute – when the pancreas is inflamed and causes short-term illness;
chronic – when the pancreas is irreversibly damaged and causes ongoing, long-term illness or bouts of acute symptoms.
Pancreatitis is most common between the ages of 35 and 64. Other risk factors include heavy drinking, smoking, family history of pancreatitis, and family history of high blood cholesterol or triglycerides.
Causes of acute pancreatitis
- Heavy, chronic use of alcohol;
- Medications (corticosteroids, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories);
- Some infections (mumps, hepatitis, mononucleosis);
- Abdominal injury or recent surgery;
- Genetic abnormalities of the pancreas;
Causes of chronic pancreatitis include:
- Chronic use alcohol, Smoking;
- Autoimmune disease;
- Cystic fibrosis;
- High blood cholesterol or triglyceride levels;
- Hereditary disorders;
- Pancreatic cancer.
Both forms of the disease can cause potentially serious complications, including:
- Formation of fluid-filled pockets (pseudocysts);
- Chronic pain;
- Infection that spreads to other parts of the body, resulting in shock and organ failure;
- Internal bleeding;
- Diabetes (due to insufficient insulin production);
- Kidney failure;
- Increased risk of pancreatic cancer;
- Trouble breathing;
- Death of the pancreatic tissue.
Symptoms of acute pancreatitis
- Acute Pain in the upper abdomen that may radiate to the back, worse after eating;
- Swollen or tender abdomen;
- Rapid pulse;
If acute pancreatitis is very severe, it may also lead to dehydration and a drop in blood pressure.
If the inflammation is severe or recurrent, your pancreas can be permanently damaged, leading to chronic pancreatitis. Symptoms of chronic pancreatitis are similar to those for acute pancreatitis, but the pain is likely to be less severe and you won’t have a fever. Additional symptoms of chronic pancreatitis include:
– pale-coloured, oily faeces;
– weight loss (even though you’re eating normally) and tiredness.
Diagnosis of pancreatitis
- Blood tests to check your levels of digestive enzymes.
- Abdominal ultrasound – this uses sound waves to produce images of the inside of your body.
- CT scan – this uses X-rays are used to make three-dimensional pictures of the inside of your body.
- Endoscopic ultrasound – a narrow, flexible, tube-like telescopic camera called an endoscope is passed down your throat, through your stomach and into your small bowel. An ultrasound sensor produces sound waves to create pictures of your pancreas and bile ducts. This procedure can sometimes trigger an attack of acute pancreatitis.
- Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP) – this is an MRI scan that uses magnets and radio waves to produce images of the inside of your body. You will lie inside a cylinder-shaped scanner and a dye is injected into a vein that helps to show cross-section pictures of your pancreas and related organs, such as your gallbladder and bile ducts.
The best treatment for chronic pancreatitis is to stop drinking alcohol, even if it was not the cause. You may also be prescribed painkillers and may even be referred to a pain clinic if necessary. Other treatments:
- Medicines to replace enzymes that are no longer being produced;
- Restricting the fat in your diet; insulin (if you have diabetes);
- Vitamin supplements;
- If you smoke, you will also be advised to quit in order to minimise the risk of developing pancreatic cancer.
- In some cases surgery may be required, in which case your surgeon will discuss with you the type of operation you need.