Signs & Symptoms of Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis often causes persistent abdominal pain. Pain in the abdomen usually occurs in the upper abdomen, can spread (radiate) to the back, and may come and go. Abdominal pain can vary from mild to severe, and often is worse after eating, drinking, consuming alcohol, and while lying on the back.

Advanced cases of chronic pancreatitis may no longer cause abdominal pain because the pancreas has stopped producing digestive enzymes.

Other symptoms of pancreatitis include the following:

  • Abdominal bloating (swelling, distention)
  • Abnormal stools (e.g., pale-colored, fatty)
  • Belching (burping)
  • Fever and chills (indicate infection)
  • Hiccups
  • Indigestion
  • Mild jaundice (yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Skin rashes
  • Unexplained weight loss (due to malabsorption)

Pancreatitis often causes anxiety, distress, and other signs, such as low blood pressure, rapid heart rate, and rapid breathing rate (i.e., respiration). The condition also can cause serious complications that can be life threatening.

Complications include the following:

  • Bleeding (may cause shock)
  • Dehydration (excessive loss of body fluid)
  • Infection
  • Organ failure (e.g., difficulty breathing, kidney failure, heart failure)
  • Pseudocysts (accumulations of damaged tissue and fluid that collect in the pancreas, the pancreatic duct, or the surrounding area)
  • Tissue damage (necrosis)

Chronic pancreatitis, which may develop over time or can be triggered by an acute attack, often results in the formation of scar tissue that can affect pancreatic function. Chronic pancreatitis increases the risk for diabetes and pancreatic cancer.

Several factors can indicate an increased risk for serious complications and death from pancreatitis. These factors include the following:

  • Age (complications are more common in patients over the age of 55)
  • Extremely low blood pressure (e.g., systolic blood pressure <90 mmHg; normal systolic pressure is <120 mmHg)
  • Leukocytosis (extremely high levels of white blood cells [leukocytes] in the blood)
  • Obesity
  • Severe abdominal bleeding
  • Very rapid heart rate (e.g., greater than 130 beats per minute; normal heart rate for adults is between 60 and 100 beats per minute)

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 29 Feb 2008

Last Modified: 17 Nov 2011