Pancreatitis, the disease that 28-year-old Swedish DJ Avicii lived within the years before his recent death, is on the rise in the United States. Pancreatitis is characterized as inflammation in the pancreas, an organ located behind the stomach. Acute pancreatitis can come on suddenly, signaling a new and concerning problem. However, whether from lifestyle choices or a lingering health issue, chronic pancreatitis can build up until it becomes unbearable and even dangerous.
The pancreas serves two main functions: to make insulin that helps the body use blood sugar for energy and to make enzymes that help you digest food. Sometimes something causes the digestive enzymes to become activated but stay inside the pancreas, rather than be sent out into the stomach. These digestive enzymes damage the pancreas, which leads to inflammation. In other words, when there is damage to the pancreas from any cause, there is spillage of these enzymes in the pancreas and into the fat surrounding it. The condition can be acute or chronic. Symptoms of pancreatitis include:
- Pain in the abdomen or back
- Loss of appetite
- Fast heart rate
- Extreme weight loss
According to the United States National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), acute pancreatitis results in 275,000 hospital stays in the United States, with 86,000 hospital stays for chronic pancreatitis each year. certain groups of people are more likely to get pancreatitis, but the most common is those who excessively drink alcohol and those who have a history of gallstones. Research has found that long-term heavy drinking is a stronger risk factor for both acute and chronic pancreatitis.
Pancreatitis is diagnosed by an individual’s medical history, a physical examination, and typically a blood test (amylase or lipase) for digestive enzymes of the pancreas. Blood amylase or lipase levels are typically elevated three times the normal level during acute pancreatitis. In some cases when the blood tests are not elevated, and the diagnosis is still in question, abdominal imaging, such as a computed tomography (CT) scan, might be performed.
How Is Pancreatitis Treated?
Cases of acute and chronic pancreatitis are often treated in the hospital. Visits should only last a few days, but the length of stay depends on the case and the severity of damage within the pancreas. Doctors will perform blood and imaging tests to get a definite diagnosis and can then begin treatment. Due to the loss of fluids from vomiting and decreased food intake, the initial treatment for pancreatitis is hydration using intravenous (IV) therapy with one of several different kinds of solutions.
While IV fluid replacement and pain medication may help to get many cases of pancreatitis under control, in some cases surgery may be required. Since there can be a number of different causes for pancreatitis, surgery may involve the pancreas, the gallbladder, or even clearing bile ducts in the digestive system.
In some cases of chronic pancreatitis, serious lifestyle changes along with a prescription medication may get things back to normal. What matters most is that you do something about your pain and discomfort before it becomes more dangerous. For more information about diagnosing and treating pancreatitis, schedule an appointment with one of our physicians by calling Carlisle Digestive Disease Associates at (717) 245-2228, or request an appointment online.