Pancreatitis

What Is Pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis is a condition characterised by the inflammation of the pancreas – a gland located behind the stomach. The pancreas plays a crucial role in digestion and regulation of blood sugar, by producing digestive enzymes and insulin. When the pancreas becomes inflamed, its digestive enzymes start to attack the organ itself, leading to pain, swelling, and potential complications.

What Are the Types of Pancreatitis?

There are two main types of pancreatitis:

Acute Pancreatitis

This is a sudden and short-term inflammation of the pancreas, typically lasting for a few days. It can range from mild discomfort to a severe illness requiring hospitalisation. In most cases, acute pancreatitis resolves completely with treatment.

Chronic Pancreatitis

This is a long-term condition characterised by repeated episodes of inflammation that damage the pancreas over time. Chronic pancreatitis can lead to permanent loss of pancreatic function and complications like malnutrition and diabetes.

What Are the Risk Factors for Pancreatitis?

Several factors can increase your risk of developing pancreatitis, including:

Excessive Alcohol Consumption

Heavy alcohol use is a leading cause of chronic pancreatitis, damaging the pancreas and hindering its ability to function properly.

Gallstones

Gallstones, which are hardened deposits in the gallbladder, can sometimes block the pancreatic duct, leading to inflammation.

Smoking

Smoking is a risk factor for both acute and chronic pancreatitis. It can irritate the pancreas and contribute to inflammation.

Family History

Having a close family member with pancreatitis can increase your risk of developing the condition.

Medications

Certain medications can trigger pancreatitis, such as certain types of diuretics and steroids.

Signs and Symptoms of Pancreatitis

The most common symptom of pancreatitis is upper abdominal pain that radiates to the back. This pain can be constant and severe, often described as a gnawing or burning sensation. Other symptoms may include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Oily stools
  • Unexplained weight loss

The severity of symptoms can vary depending on the type and extent of pancreatic inflammation.

How Is Pancreatitis Diagnosed?

Diagnosing pancreatitis involves a combination of approaches:

Medical History

Your doctor will inquire about your symptoms, medical history, and any risk factors like alcohol consumption or gallstones.

Physical Examination

A physical exam may reveal tenderness in the upper abdomen.

Blood Tests

Blood tests can measure levels of pancreatic enzymes, which are elevated in pancreatitis.

Imaging Scans

Imaging tests like ultrasound, CT scan, or MRI scan can visualise the pancreas and identify gallstones or other abnormalities.

Treatments for Pancreatitis

The primary goal of pancreatitis treatment is to manage inflammation and allow the pancreas to heal. Treatment options may vary depending on the severity of the condition:

Lifestyle and Dietary Changes

This includes stopping alcohol consumption and adhering to a clear liquid diet initially. Solid foods will be gradually reintroduced, depending on the patient’s recovery progress. A low-fat diet will be advised. Additionally, for those with diabetes, managing blood sugar levels will be a priority too.

Medications

Pain relievers are prescribed to manage discomfort, while medications can target specific causes such as gallstones or infections. Additionally, pancreatic enzyme supplements may be recommended, along with insulin therapy for diabetes management.

Endoscopic Procedures

In some cases, an endoscopic procedure may be necessary to clear blocked pancreatic ducts or eliminate gallstones.

Surgery

In severe cases, such as those with complications like pancreatic necrosis (tissue death), pancreatectomy may be necessary to remove damaged tissue. Your doctor will advise you on the best course of treatment for your case.

Complications of Pancreatitis

In severe cases of acute pancreatitis, complications can arise, including:

Pseudocysts

Fluid-filled sacs may develop in the pancreas or surrounding area.

Pancreatic Necrosis and Infection

If a significant portion of the pancreas suffers tissue death (necrosis), it can become infected, requiring intensive treatment with antibiotics and possibly surgery.

Chronic Pancreatitis

Repeated episodes of acute pancreatitis can lead to chronic pancreatitis, with permanent damage to the pancreas. This may lead to further digestive problems, diabetes, and an increased risk of pancreatic cancer.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How long does it take to recover from acute pancreatitis?

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Can pancreatitis be cured?

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Does pancreatitis increase the risk of cancer?

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Meet Our Specialist

Dr Kieron Lim

MBBS, University of LondonMember, Royal College of Physicians (UK)Fellow, Academy of Medicine (Gastroenterology) SingaporeFellow, Royal College of Physicians (Edinburgh)

Dr Kieron Lim is a senior consultant specialising in Gastroenterology and Hepatology at Mount Elizabeth Hospital, Singapore. With a keen focus on various gastrointestinal and hepatic conditions, including pancreatitis, Dr Lim ensures that his patients receive the best possible care. Dr Lim is skilled in the medical management of complex gastrointestinal cases and has international experience from Singapore, the United States and the United Kingdom.