Your pancreas is a long, narrow organ that sits just behind your stomach. It makes enzymes that help you digest food. And it makes hormones, such as insulin, that help control your blood sugar levels.
Sometimes the pancreas gets inflamed. This is known as pancreatitis. Pancreatitis causes pain, nausea, and other symptoms. If the inflammation doesn’t go away or gets worse, it is called chronic pancreatitis. Over time, chronic pancreatitis harms the pancreas and creates scar tissue which keeps it from working normally. When this happens, your pancreas can’t make the enzymes and hormones your body needs to digest food and control blood sugar levels.
The most common cause of chronic pancreatitis is drinking too much alcohol over a long period of time. Other causes include high blood levels of certain fats or calcium. Some medicines may cause chronic pancreatitis. A lung disease called cystic fibrosis is also a cause of pancreatitis. Sometimes the cause cannot be found. Men are more likely to get chronic pancreatitis than women.
The most common symptom of chronic pancreatitis is pain. You may have stomach pain and back pain that gets worse when you eat or drink. Nausea and vomiting are common. Some people lose weight, despite eating normally, because their bodies can’t absorb the nutrients from foods. Another possible symptom is high blood sugar levels. Some people have jaundice, which causes yellowish eyes and skin, and dark urine.
You may also have large, bulky stools that smell bad because you can’t digest fat. Some people get a bloated belly.
To find out if you have chronic pancreatitis, your healthcare provider will ask about your medical history and give you a physical exam. You may also have blood tests, or tests on your urine and stool.
Your provider may also suggest imaging tests. These may include a C-T scan or an ultrasound. A C-T scan is a series of X-rays that are put together by a computer to show a more complete picture. An ultrasound uses sound waves and a computer to show a live image of certain kinds of tissue.
The first step in treatment is to manage pain and give fluid and nutrition. Non-narcotic pain medicine may be enough to control your pain. If not, your provider may recommend that you see a pain specialist. Sometimes a hospital stay is needed to get the pain under control. Fluids and nutrition may be given through an IV and a feeding tube.
If you have chronic pancreatitis, you need to eat a low-fat, healthy diet with small, frequent meals. You need to avoid alcohol, fatty foods, and caffeine. Some people need to take vitamin supplements. If your pancreas isn’t making enough digestive enzymes or insulin, you’ll need to take medication. Enzyme tablets can help your body digest food. Insulin shots can help your body control blood sugar levels.
Some people may have a treatment called therapeutic endoscopy. An endoscope is a thin flexible tube with a light and a camera. While you are asleep, it’s inserted through your mouth, down into your small intestine. The camera sends images to a screen. The endoscope allows tiny tools to be used to drain cysts, remove stones, or widen narrowed ducts. In some cases these treatments can help reduce chronic pancreatitis symptoms.
In severe cases, surgery may be needed. Some of the pancreas may need to be removed. Your healthcare provider will tell you more about the types of surgery that may help you.
Some people with chronic pancreatitis get other diseases, like cancer of the pancreas. These are treated separately.
Things to Remember
- Eat a low-fat, healthy diet.
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine.
- Take enzyme supplements as prescribed.
Chronic pancreatitis can be a painful condition, but it can be managed with attention and care. Make sure to talk with your healthcare provider about what treatment options are best for you.
What We Have Learned
Chronic pancreatitis means your pancreas is inflamed and the inflammation is getting worse or not going away. True or false?
The answer is True. Chronic means ongoing. The inflammation can cause pain and other symptoms.
Some people with chronic pancreatitis get yellowish skin and eyes. True or false?
The answer is True. Chronic pancreatitis can cause jaundice, which makes your skin and eyes yellowish.
The most common cause of chronic pancreatitis is drinking a lot of alcohol over a long time. True or false?
The answer is True. People with chronic pancreatitis need to avoid alcohol.