Inflammation of the Pancreas

Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas. When inflamed, the digestive enzymes produced by the pancreas become active within the pancreas instead of in the small intestine as they should. As a result, the pancreas starts to attack itself.

Pancreatitis can be acute or chronic. Acute pancreatitis causes attacks of pain within several hours of eating a large meal or drinking a large amount of alcohol. About 210,000 people in the United States suffer a bout of acute pancreatitis each year.

Chronic pancreatitis occurs in people with acute pancreatitis when the pancreas develops scar tissue and slowly starts to malfunction. Eventually, the pancreas may stop producing digestive enzymes.

Both types of pancreatitis are more common in men than in women.

Causes of pancreatitis

Gallstones blocking the bile duct and excessive alcohol consumption are the major causes of pancreatitis. Less frequently, certain medications (in particular, the aminosalicylate anti-inflammatory compounds used to treat Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis), a duodenal ulcer, an overactive parathyroid gland, or a stomach injury can cause pancreatitis.

Symptoms of pancreatitis

Acute pancreatitis is hard to miss. It causes excruciating pain in the center of your upper abdomen extending through to your back, in addition to nausea and vomiting. You may develop a fever or bruising on your stomach from internal bleeding. You may also go into shock. If you experience severe abdominal pain that lasts more than 20 minutes, go to your doctor or a hospital emergency room for treatment.

With chronic pancreatitis, the abdominal pain can come on suddenly or gradually, usually after eating. It may develop into persistent abdominal pain. You can also develop jaundice, lose weight, and experience symptoms of diabetes (increased thirst and frequent urination) as the pancreas gradually deteriorates.

Diagnosis of pancreatitis

Pancreatitis is diagnosed with blood tests to assess levels of enzymes made by the pancreas as well as other chemicals in the body. X-rays, ultrasound, CT scans, or magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP) of the pancreas are also done.

Treatment of pancreatitis

For acute pancreatitis, you will probably need a hospital stay to completely rest your intestinal tract (that is, no food by mouth) and to receive intravenous fluids, antibiotics, and painkillers.

If you have gallstones, they may need to be removed. Likewise, collections of fluid around the pancreas that develop from acute pancreatitis may be drained or surgically removed. You'll also need to stop drinking alcohol and follow a nutritious, low-fat diet.

If you are diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis, you will likely be prescribed medications that contain pancreatic enzymes to help your body absorb food. If the pain persists, surgery to remove damaged tissue in the pancreas or to cut the nerves that transmit pain may be needed. As with acute pancreatitis, stopping alcohol use and eating a nutritious, low-fat diet are important.

Publication Review By: H. Franklin Herlong, M.D.

Published: 24 Mar 2011

Last Modified: 23 Jul 2015