Danger level: High
What is it?
Pancreatitis is a disease in which the pancreas gets inflamed.
Who gets it?
In the US, it happens to about 40 people out of 100,000 people. Over the world, acute pancreatitis is most common in the US and in Finland.
In terms of race, African Americans are more prone to acute pancreatitis. The risk for African Americans aged 35-64 is 10 times higher than for any other group.
What causes it?
The pancreas is an organ which is located next to our stomach and intestines. It has 2 roles:
- It produces hormones: Such as insulin.
- It secretes the pancreatic juice – It contains digestive enzymes (types of molecules in the body), which help with the breakdown of the food we eat in the intestines.
The pancreas. When it gets inflamed, pancreatitis happens.
Under normal conditions, the pancreatic juice is secreted into our intestines after we eat, helping with the breakdown of the food we ate. When that happens, the enzymes in the juice are activated, and start breaking the food molecules into smaller parts.
In acute pancreatitis, these enzymes are activated while still in the pancreas. Since their role is to break things down, instead of breaking down food, they break down the pancreas itself, causing it damage.
There are many causes for acute pancreatitis, with the first two being the most common:
- Heavy alcohol use
- Gallstones – These are stones in the gall bladder (you can see the gall bladder in the drawing above).
- A high level of fats in the blood
- After abdominal surgery
- Certain medications
- Cystic fibrosis
- Treating gallstones by a procedure called ERCP
- Infections – Such as mumps.
- Cancer in the pancreas
- Injury to the abdomen or elsewhere in the body
How does it feel?
The main thing that’s felt in acute pancreatitis is an abdominal pain. It usually travels to the back. The pain may get worse by eating, especially fatty foods.
Other things that are felt during an episode of acute pancreatitis can include a swollen and tender abdomen, nausea and vomiting, and fever.
How is it discovered?
To determine if someone has acute pancreatitis, the blood level of the enzymes in the pancreas can be checked. These enzymes are released from the pancreas before due time, cause damage to the pancreas, and then reach blood vessels and can be found in the blood. These enzymes are called lipase and amylase and they will be high in blood tests in people with pancreatitis.
Other methods that can help include an ultrasound or a CT scan, as well as other techniques.
How is it treated?
The main treatment is fluids and pain killers, both given directly to the vein. Also, not eating for a couple of days helps the pancreas rest and recover. Acute pancreatitis usually requires hospitalization, and the treatment is given in the hospital.
Acute pancreatitis is a severe condition, and in up to 20% of people it may require hospitalization in an intensive care unit. There, the person with pancreatitis will be closely monitored, since the disease can cause damage to other organs in the body as well.
What happens after treatment?
Usually an attack of acute pancreatitis lasts a few days, unless there are complications. Even when treated properly, acute pancreatitis is a serious condition, which can sometimes also lead to death.
After recovery, the cause for the pancreatitis has to be discovered and treated, in order to avoid future attacks.
Sometimes, the simple treatment above doesn’t help, and the situation requires a surgery to fix the condition.
The bottom line – How do I avoid it?
Since many cases of acute pancreatitis are caused by excessive alcohol drinking, you should limit your alcohol drinking. If you abuse alcohol, you should see a doctor about a referral to an alcohol treatment center.
This video shows the personal story of someone with pancreatitis caused by heavy alcohol drinking: