The pancreas, an organ in your upper abdomen, has several important functions. It secretes fluids into the bowel to help you digest your food. It also secretes hormones into the blood, one being insulin which regulates blood sugar levels. When the pancreas becomes inflamed for any reason, it is called pancreatitis.
Pancreatitis has some very characteristic symptoms. Upper abdominal pain, sometimes going into the back, and nausea and vomiting are quite common. The pain can be very severe. These symptoms can be caused by other diseases such as gallbladder and ulcer disease.
Pancreatitis is often seen in people with associated ailments including gallbladder disease and gallstones, elevated triglycerides, excessive alcohol usage, or elevated blood calcium. It has been associated with smoking, the use of some prescription medications, and some infections.
Anytime you notice the symptoms listed above you should seek medical attention. Sometimes this requires a trip to the emergency room and hospitalization. Patients with pancreatitis most often recover, but severe cases can take a long time to get better, and rarely this disease can be fatal. So do not hesitate to get input from your doctor.
Pancreatitis can be hereditary, a first symptom of pancreatic cancer, or associated with a number of other causes. Sometimes, no cause is found.
Generally, physicians do not screen patients to try to prevent pancreatitis. If in evaluating a patient, we come across risk factors for pancreatitis, we certainly try to address those to prevent its occurrence. For example, if we discover gallstones that seem to be at risk for causing pancreatitis we would recommend their removal. Or if a patient has very high triglycerides we would want to lower them to prevent pancreatitis. There are recommendations for screening the pancreas for cancer; but that’s another blog.
Every gastroenterologist has patients with warning signs that, if heeded, might help prevent an episode of pancreatitis. Perhaps the most common example is associated with gallstones. Gallstones are not removed just because they are found. But if they cause pain after eating, in the upper abdomen, even intermittently (referred to as biliary colic); then they should be removed. Ignoring these symptoms may put the patient at risk for gallstone pancreatitis, which can be very severe.
To treat pancreatitis, we try to remove any cause for the occurrence (such as remove a gallstone, lower triglycerides, or stop any offending drugs) and then support the patient while healing takes place. Treatment can be as simple as bed rest, intravenous fluids and medications. But severe pancreatitis can entail prolonged hospitalization, endoscopic procedures, and even surgery. Unfortunately, doctors have had a difficult time coming up with significant improvements in the treatment of this disease.
Prevention, when possible, is best. If you feel you might be experiencing symptoms of pancreatitis, talk to your doctor. If your triglycerides are up, get them down. If you drink too much alcohol, stop that. This is a disease worth preventing.