Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas, a condition that can occur for several reasons and causes various symptoms. Pancreatitis may be acute, developing very suddenly and lasting only a few days or it may be chronic, in which case the condition occurs over many years.
Some of the symptoms of pancreatitis include:
- Severe pain in the upper abdomen or left upper quadrant. The pain is usually a burning sensation that also radiates across the back.
- Nausea and vomiting
- Raised blood pressure
- Internal bleeding
- Elevated heart rate and breathing rate
- Weight loss and loss of appetite
- Chronic pancreatitis may also lead to diabetes and even pancreatic cancer
The majority of pancreatitis cases are caused by gallstones or alcohol consumption. While gall stones generally cause acute pancreatitis, alcohol consumption is the most common cause of chronic pancreatitis.
Gallstones can cause acute pancreatitis to develop if they move out of the pancreas and block the organ’s opening. This can disrupt the usual function of digestive enzymes in the pancreas, which start to digest the pancreas instead of helping to digest food.
How alcohol leads to chronic pancreatitis is not fully understood but it has been suggested that enzymes start to digest the pancreas due to interruption of normal pancreatic function.
The use of certain medications can also cause pancreatitis. Examples of drugs that are associated with a risk for developing the condition include corticosteroids, the HIV drug didanosine, valproic acid, the chemotherapy agent azathioprine, and the anihyperglycemic drug metformin.
Diagnosis and treatment
A diagnosis of pancreatitis is made based on the presence of two of the following:
- Presence of the characteristic abdominal pain
- Elevated blood amylase or lipase
- Abdominal ultrasound scan that reveals a gallstone or alcoholic fatty liver disease
- A computed tomography (CT) scan that shows characteristics of the condition
The treatment of pancreatitis is supportive. Morphine is generally given to manage pain. In the case of acute pancreatitis, the treatment approach depends on whether the condition is mild and not likely to cause complications or severe, in which case the risk of complications is high.
Reviewed by Sally Robertson, BSc