Last Updated: March 20, 2018
Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas, which is a gland located in the upper part of the abdomen near the stomach, liver and gallbladder. Inflammation refers to the body’s response to injury, infection or irritating substances. When the pancreas is inflamed, it may become swollen and sore and lose its ability to function properly.
One job of the pancreas is to produces digestive enzymes, which it secretes into the small intestine through the pancreatic duct. These enzymes activate in the presence of bile, a substance that is produced by the liver and stored in the gallbladder. Activated digestive enzymes break down food so nutrients can be absorbed into the body. In addition, the pancreas also makes insulin, a hormone that helps the body’s cells convert blood glucose (sugar) into energy.
Pancreatitis can begin as an acute illness, meaning that it comes on strong and suddenly, then goes away after a couple days of treatment. In some cases, pancreatitis is a chronic (long-term) condition that causes irreversible scarring, tissue damage and loss of pancreatic function.
Both forms of the disease can cause potentially serious complications, including:
About 210,000 people are hospitalized each year with pancreatitis. Men and people of African descent are at increased risk for the condition. 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 and/or triglycerides.
Normally, digestive enzymes produced by the pancreas activate in the small intestine. However, when the pancreas or bile ducts are irritated, these enzymes may activate early inside the pancreas itself. The activated enzyme is an irritant and provokes an inflammatory response in the surrounding tissues.
Gallstones and alcoholism are the two most common causes of acute pancreatitis, accounting for about 80 percent of all cases. Gallstones are small “pebbles” of hardened bile. The liver and gallbladder (which produce and store bile, respectively) share a common duct system with the pancreas. Hepatic ducts from the liver merge with the cystic duct from the gallbladder to form the common bile duct. Further down this common bile duct, the pancreatic duct also merges with it to form the ampulla of Vater, which connects to the duodenum where the juices from these organs work to digest food. Gallstones in the common bile duct may irritate the pancreas by impeding flow in the pancreatic duct.
Heavy, chronic use of alcohol can also cause irritation.
Other causes of acute pancreatitis include:
The most common cause of chronic pancreatitis is chronic, heavy alcohol use. Other causes include:
In about 10 percent of pancreatitis cases, the cause is never diagnosed. Cases of pancreatitis where diagnostic procedures cannot establish a cause are called idiopathic.
Signs of acute pancreatitis include:
The following symptoms are associated with chronic pancreatitis:
Lab tests are often the first step in diagnosing pancreatitis. These include blood tests to detect increased pancreatic enzyme levels and stool tests to check for poor absorption of fats.
Imaging tests are used to determine the size of the pancreas and detect related problems like gallstones:
Most people who are diagnosed with pancreatitis are hospitalized. The main goal of treatment is to relieve symptoms and treat any infection that may be present. Treatment usually includes:
Further treatment depends on the underlying causes of the pancreatitis:
People with chronic pancreatitis may require:
Patients diagnosed with pancreatitis can help manage the condition and prevent its return through healthy lifestyle choices. One of the most important is to seek treatment for alcoholism. A primary care physician can provide referrals to appropriate programs. Patients may also benefit from smoking cessation, drinking plenty of fluids, limiting caffeine intake and eating a low-fat diet.
About 85 percent of acute pancreatitis cases are mild and clear up after a few days of treatment. Tissue death, or pancreatic necrosis, occurs in 15 to 20 percent of acute cases. This type usually requires surgical treatment and is more prone to complications.
The mortality rate for acute pancreatitis is about 5 percent. Most deaths are related to systemic infection and organ failure.
When the cause of pancreatitis is alcohol-related, the probability of recurrence is about 50 percent if the person continues to drink.
Not all cases of pancreatitis are preventable. However, the most important thing a person can do to prevent the disease is to limit alcohol intake. It’s especially important to avoid binge drinking (consuming several drinks close together).
In addition, quitting smoking may also reduce the risk of pancreatitis.