The pancreas is an important part of the digestive system that converts the food we eat into fuel for the body's cells. Responsible for two main functions, the pancreas helps digestion and regulates blood sugar. However, the pancreas can become inflamed, which causes pancreatitis to occur.
There are two types of pancreatitis: acute and chronic. Acute pancreatitis is sudden inflammation of the pancreas. This form of pancreatitis is more common and causes about 275,000 hospital stays in the United States per year. When acute pancreatitis occurs multiple times, or when there is sustained damage to the pancreas, chronic pancreatitis develops. Chronic pancreatitis is less common and the result of about 86,000 hospital stays in the United States annually.
Sajan Nagpal, MD, medical pancreatologist at the University of Chicago Medicine, answered a few common questions about pancreatitis.
Who is at risk for pancreatitis?
Heavy alcohol drinkers, those who have stones in the gallbladder or bile duct and those with high calcium or high triglycerides (fat found in the blood) are at risk of developing acute pancreatitis. In addition, those who have certain genetic mutations and anatomical defects in the pancreas are also at risk. In about 10% of cases, the precise cause of acute pancreatitis is difficult to identify.
Will pancreatitis go away?
First, it's important to determine if it's acute or chronic pancreatitis. Acute pancreatitis tends to go away after treatment, although it can reoccur or lead to chronic pancreatitis. Chronic pancreatitis or recurrent acute pancreatitis is less likely to go away even with day-to-day treatment and lifestyle changes, but there are strategies that we can use to reduce disability from them.
When is pancreatitis a cause for concern?
Pancreatitis becomes a cause for concern when it reoccurs, which can lead to chronic pancreatitis. People with chronic pancreatitis have an increased risk for pancreatic cancer. It is also a cause for concern if it occurs seemingly without reason in someone 50 years old or older, since it can be a sign of a more severe illness like pancreatic cancer.
Why does pancreatitis cause acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)?
With severe pancreatitis there are a lot of inflammatory chemicals that are secreted into the blood stream. These chemicals create inflammation throughout the body, including the lungs. As a result, a person may experience an inflammatory type of reaction in the lungs called ARDS. Specifically, the small air sacs inside the lungs called the alveoli can get inflamed and become filled with fluid causing acute respiratory distress syndrome.
When is pancreatitis fatal?
Most cases of pancreatitis will require a hospital stay because of severe stomach pain and dehydration, but the condition is not fatal in the majority of patients. However, sometimes inflammation is so severe that it can cause complications inside and outside of the pancreas. Kidney failure, lung problems or infections that can lead to sepsis can all land someone in the ICU or even prove fatal. Fortunately, with advanced medical treatments and better guidelines for management, those cases are decreasing in number.
Can pancreatitis cause diabetes?
This is a topic of active investigation as emerging data shows that even a single episode of acute pancreatitis can increase the likelihood of developing diabetes, especially in people with an already increased risk for that disease, like those with obesity. It's believed that some pancreatic tissue dies during acute pancreatitis episodes, which increase the risks for developing diabetes. Chronic pancreatitis can also cause diabetes by scarring or destroying the gland that helps the insulin-producing cells.