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Pancreatitis: Don’t Ignore Abdominal Pain

Pancreatitis hits most people like a sledgehammer — and without warning. The upper abdominal pain is so intense, you’ll need to go to the emergency room for relief.

Although you can’t prevent pancreatitis, you can educate yourself about your risk factors and take steps to lower your chances of it occurring.

What Is Pancreatitis?

The pancreas is a gland behind the stomach producing enzymes that help digestion and hormones, which regulate the way your body processes sugar (glucose). Inflammation of the pancreas is called pancreatitis, and it can be acute or chronic and mild or severe.

Unlike pancreatic cancer, which does not have a good prognosis, pancreatitis usually is temporary.

Signs of Pancreatitis

Acute and chronic pancreatitis both start with upper abdominal pain. The other symptoms you may have can help your provider determine if you are experiencing a short-term or long-term illness.

If you have acute pancreatitis, you likely will look and feel seriously ill and need to see a doctor right away. Acute pancreatitis symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pain that radiates to your back
  • Tenderness when touching the abdomen
  • Fever
  • Rapid pulse
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

With chronic pancreatitis, you may not have symptoms until there are complications. Chronic pancreatitis symptoms usually include:

  • Abdominal pain that feels worse after eating
  • Losing weight without trying
  • Oily, smelly stools (steatorrhea)

When Pancreatitis Is Severe

In a small percentage of people, severe acute pancreatitis causes a systemic reaction that affects the whole body. This can lead to shock and multiple organ failure, which can be fatal if it isn’t treated quickly. You may not be able to tell how severe your pancreatitis is, so you should go to the emergency room if you have symptoms.

At the ER, you will be evaluated for Systemic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (SIRS). The signs that indicate SIRS are a warning to care providers that your body is having a severe response to pancreatitis. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to know ahead of time who will have a systemic reaction.

Causes of Pancreatitis

The most common cause of acute pancreatitis is having gallstones. Gallstones cause inflammation of your pancreas as stones pass through and get stuck in a bile or pancreatic duct.

The most common causes of chronic pancreatitis are heavy alcohol use, tobacco use and genetic disorders of your pancreas.

Who Is Most at Risk for Pancreatitis?

Acute pancreatitis is more common if you are middle-aged or elderly, but it can affect people of any age. Men are more likely to develop alcohol-related pancreatitis, while women are more likely to develop it as a result of gallstones.

There are several factors that can increase your risk of pancreatitis, including:

  • Drinking four to five alcoholic drinks a day
  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Family history of pancreatitis

Treatment of Pancreatitis

Treating pancreatitis depends on the cause, whether it’s acute or chronic and how severe it is. In general, treatment consists of supportive care, such as IV fluids, and most people with acute pancreatitis will need pain relief to get through it. Some people will need emergency treatment for certain causes. And some will need intensive care for complications.

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