What is Pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis is a medical condition that causes inflammation of pancreatic tissue. It can be detected with a medical imaging test such as x-ray, CT scan or ultrasound of the abdomen, as well as by testing a patient’s blood and urine samples. For reference, a patient’s pancreas is a special gland found in the abdominal area, behind the patient’s stomach. Its main job entails releasing pancreatic enzymes and hormones such as insulin to help with the digestion process when food reaches the small intestine. Depending on what type of pancreatitis you have, you may experience a variety of different symptoms, from abdominal pain and general fatigue to feelings of clamminess and nausea. See below for a breakdown of the main types of pancreatitis.

Under normal circumstances, pancreatic enzymes remain inactive until they are needed in the small intestine. But sometimes they will become active prematurely, starting to digest while still in the pancreas, and thereby cause damage such as bleeding and swelling of the pancreatic tissue and the blood vessels located within the pancreas. This condition is called acute pancreatitis.

Acute pancreatitis is primarily triggered by gallstones blocking the outlet channel from the pancreas.  It can also be caused by excessive alcohol intake and affects more men than women. Symptoms include pain in the upper left-hand side or center of the abdomen and worsen when the affected patient eats foods high in fat. Symptoms also consistently worsen throughout the course of a week and may cause the patient to look ill with fever, sweating, nausea and vomiting. The condition is treated with a couple days in a hospital and may require more extensive medical treatment if the case if severe.  It is very important to diagnose and begin treatment early for acute cases, as this condition can be fatal if left untreated.

As the name suggests, chronic pancreatitis is inflammation in the pancreas that has no cure and worsens over time. It can lead to serious tissue damage that may be permanent as a result of scarring caused by long-term inflammation. The pancreas begins to malfunction, preventing the body from digesting properly, especially when the patient eats fats. If the damage causes problems with the pancreas’s normal ability to release insulin hormones, the patient may become diabetic.

Like acute pancreatitis, chronic pancreatitis is often caused when a patient drinks too much alcohol. Getting acute pancreatitis multiple times may lead to the symptoms becoming chronic, worsening and mimicking those of pancreatic cancer. Patients who’ve been diagnosed may need to take supplementary enzymes before and after meals to help their body digest.  You would know if you need pancreatic enzyme replacement if you have large volumes of watery malodorous diarrhea after eating meals, often times this stool will float in the toilet becaue of the high amount of undigested fat remaining in it.

Pancreatitis in the form of a pancreatic pseudocyst occurs when an abdominal cavity in abdomen fills up with body fluid, pancreatic enzymes, blood and pancreatic tissue. Damage of the pancreatic ducts cause improper channeling of these bodily fluids. Pancreatic pseudocysts can happen after a patient has had a particularly bad case of acute pancreatitis or after the patient has endured physical trauma, which occurs quite often in children. Patients with chronic pancreatitis often develop these types of cysts.  Pseudocysts can be treated endoscopically using endoscopic ultrasound drainage (EUS) which has good rates of cure, but some relapse rates.  They can also be treated surgically, which is more invasive but has a lower rate of relapse.

Patients’ symptoms include bloating, aches and pain the abdomen. It may be hard to eat because the body cannot properly digest foods. Doctors can sometimes feel the cyst, or mass, during an abdominal examination. If the pancreatic pseudocyst becomes infected, the condition is called a pancreatic abscess and must be treated immediately with a medical provider, as surgery is sometimes necessary to remove tissue and drain the painful abscess. Many patients do not survive from pancreatic abscesses.

Contact your doctor if you display any specifics symptoms of the above types of pancreatitis, or if you have unexplained abdominal pain and jaundice, as these can be signs of poor digestion. A medical specialist listed in our directory will be happy to provide you with the answers you need to recover from your specific case of pancreatitis.


Reviewed 12/29/2011 by David M. Nolan, M.D.
Diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine, 2011
Currently a Fellow of Gastroenterology, at UCI 2011-2014