What Causes Pancreatitis and How Do I Treat It?


The pancreas is a large organ that sits behind your stomach.  Helping to control the body’s blood sugar levels and metabolism, the pancreas also helps with the digestive process.  Secreting specialized hormones such as insulin and digestive hormones, the pancreas plays an important role in your body’s daily functions.

As with most organs in your body, the pancreas is susceptible to inflammation.  When this happens, your Baltimore physician will likely inform you that you have what is called pancreatitis.

Today we are going to take a closer look at what pancreatitis is, what causes it, and how this pancreatic disease is treated.


What is Pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis is a disease in which the pancreas becomes inflamed.  The reason behind this inflammation is simple – digestive enzymes produced by the pancreas become activated before they are released into the small intestine during digestion.  These activated enzymes then attack the pancreas causing the inflammation.

In general, pancreatitis will cause patients all or some of the following symptoms:

  • Pain in the upper abdomen
  • Pain radiating in the back
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Internal bleeding
  • Elevated or decreased blood pressure
  • Irregular heart and respiratory rates
  • Fever
  • Jaundice

There are two forms of pancreatitis: acute and chronic.


Acute Pancreatitis

Acute pancreatitis is a sudden inflammation of the pancreas that lasts for a short time.  It may cause minor to severe discomfort in pancreatitis patients and can even lead to a life-threatening illness if not treated properly.  Acute pancreatitis can cause the following symptoms and complications:

  • Bleeding in the pancreatic glands
  • Serious tissue damage
  • Infections
  • Pancreatic cyst formation
  • Pancreatic fluid leaks into the abdomen

In addition, the most difficult cases of acute pancreatitis may cause damage to other vital organs such as the heart, lungs, and kidneys.


Chronic Pancreatitis

Chronic pancreatitis affects patients for long periods of time.  Usually a severe case of acute pancreatitis triggers the start on chronic pancreatic which then continues to develop over the course of years.  As a chronic pancreatitis patient in Baltimore, you may experience things such as:

  • The inability to properly digest foods
  • Gradual or sudden weight loss
  • Foul-smelling stools or diarrhea

Chronic pancreatitis can also lead to diabetes and pancreatic calcification (when small, hard calcium deposits develop in the pancreas).


What Causes Pancreatitis?

Eighty percent of pancreatitis patients in Baltimore will be able to attribute their pancreatitis diagnosis to gallstones (acute pancreatitis) or alcohol (chronic pancreatitis).  These, and other common causes soon to be discussed, encourage the pancreatic digestive enzymes to act on the pancreas itself rather than the food that is being digested in the small intestine.

Other common causes of acute pancreatitis include:

  • Medications
  • Infections
  • Trauma
  • Metabolic disorders
  • Surgery

On the other hand, common causes of chronic pancreatitis include:

  • Hereditary disorders of the pancreas
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • High triglycerides
  • Medications

In 15% of acute pancreatitis cases and 20-30% of chronic pancreatitis cases, the general cause is unknown.


How is Pancreatitis Treated?

It depends on how severe your case of pancreatitis is when it comes treatment options.  If you are in the Baltimore area, it is best to consult your physician first to determine your next plan of action.


Mild Acute Pancreatitis

If you find yourself plagued with a mild case of acute pancreatitis, you will generally find treatment during a hospital stay.  Slow eating is encouraged (whereas in the past, eating was not encouraged until the inflammation was resolved) and oxygen is routinely given to prevent lung damage.  Additionally, you receive intravenous fluids since dehydration is a common symptom during an acute bout of pancreatitis.  Lastly, narcotic painkillers are sometimes necessary to manage the pain caused at the onset of an acute pancreatitis attack.


Severe Acute Pancreatitis

If you find yourself with a more serious situation, and are battling a bout of severe acute pancreatitis, chances are you will find yourself within the intensive care unit of the hospital.  This is because severe acute pancreatitis is usually paired with organ failure, infected necrosis, a pseudocyst, or an abscess.

In an attempt to repair the pancreas, your fluid levels will have likely dropped significantly causing your body to go into shock.  You will require intravenous fluids immediately, a continual oxygen supply, and possibly feeding tubes to provide nutrition.

Altogether, with either mild or acute pancreatitis, the underlying cause must be assessed and treated.  If gallstones are the culprit, and your physician determines your gallbladder must be removed, it has to be done within two weeks of the pancreatitis attack to prevent recurrent pancreatitis.  Should alcohol be the cause, consumption of alcohol must stop immediately and treatment for alcohol abuse may improve symptoms.

Additionally, you Baltimore physician will typically recommend the following:

  • No alcohol intake for 6 months to allow pancreas to heal
  • Restricted diet within the first 48 hours
  • Fluid and electrolyte replacement via IVs
  • Feeding tube initiation if symptoms do not improve within 72 hours


Chronic Pancreatitis

Chronic pancreatitis is more difficult to treat than acute pancreatitis.  Your Baltimore physician will make every attempt to relieve any symptoms you experience by improving your overall nutrition.  To start, this means no alcohol consumption, since chronic pancreatitis is typically caused by over consumption of alcohol.

In addition, this might include a low-fat diet to relieve the stress placed on your pancreas during digestion.  Further, you may be given pancreatic enzyme supplements and insulin to help the pancreas rest during high stress times.  Lastly, you may require ongoing pain medication to manage the pain the inflammation is causing.

If by chance your chronic pancreatitis is extremely severe, there may be a chance you will need surgery to widen a narrow pancreatic duct, remove tissue or stones that are blocking the pancreatic duct, or drain a pseudocyst that has formed.

In the end, pancreatitis is a serious pancreatic disease that has the potential to cause you many problems.  If you find yourself suffering from either acute or chronic pancreatitis, and want the very best care available, contact Dr. Fraiman and his team of specialists today.

With over 20 years’ experience working with patients who have pancreatic disease, Dr. Fraiman can help develop an individualized treatment plan that will aim to give you back your quality of life as soon as possible.