Acute & Chronic Pancreatitis Symptoms & Treatment | MedStar Health

The pancreas is a large gland located behind the stomach and intestines. It has two jobs: to produce chemicals called enzymes that help the body digest food and to produce hormones that help the body regulate blood sugar. Pancreatitis is a condition that involves the swelling or inflammation of the pancreas. It may be acute or chronic. Repeated attacks of acute pancreatitis may lead to chronic pancreatitis, and patients with chronic pancreatitis can continue to have acute episodes. It is important to understand the symptoms and risk factors, so you can reduce your chances of developing the disease or better manage it if it’s already developed.

Acute pancreatitis is a non-progressive disease, meaning that it does not worsen over time. It causes sustained pain that lasts hours, days, or up to several weeks.

Chronic pancreatitis is a long-term condition in which the pancreas is not necessarily persistently inflamed, but has been damaged by past inflammation. This condition causes constant or intermittent pain over the course of years, worsening as time goes on.

Acute pancreatitis

What are the causes?

The two most common causes of acute pancreatitis are alcohol abuse and gallstones. Other conditions that have been linked to this condition include:

  • Autoimmune conditions
  • Blockage of the pancreatic or bile ducts
  • Complications of cystic fibrosis
  • High levels of a fat called triglycerides in the blood (hypertriglyceridemia)
  • Hyperparathyroidism
  • Use of certain medications

If you have acute pancreatitis, our expert clinicians can help get to the root of your pain and offer innovative solutions. Through our Pancreas and Liver Diseases program, we have treated thousands of patients with acute and chronic pancreatitis.


What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of acute pancreatitis include:

  • Pain in the upper left or middle abdomen, which may:
    • Worsen after eating or drinking
    • Worsen when lying flat on the back
    • Radiate to the back or below the shoulder blades
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Clay-colored stools
  • Bloating
  • Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)

How is it diagnosed?

Your visit will begin with a review of your symptoms and medical history. 

This condition is typically diagnosed with both lab tests and imaging tests such as MRIs, CT scans, CT/PET scans, and ultrasounds. Sometimes, endoscopic imaging tests like an endoscopic ultrasound (EUS) or endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography procedure (ERCP) are used. Blood tests and other laboratory tests are sometimes used to reach a diagnosis of pancreatitis.


How is it treated?

All patients with pancreatitis are advised to avoid smoking, alcohol, and fatty foods. 

It often requires hospitalization. Food may be restricted to limit the activity of the pancreas. Treatment may include draining fluid from in or around the pancreas if necessary and removing gallstones or other blockages. 

In severe cases (called necrotizing pancreatitis), surgery may be needed to remove dead or infected pancreatic tissue. New endoscopic approaches are available now that include less invasive methods. These methods are achieved via EUS and stent placements for drainage of excess inflammatory fluid or dead tissue.

Chronic pancreatitis

What are the causes?

Almost everyone experiences abdominal pain on occasion, but when pain keeps recurring and increases in severity, our Chronic Pancreatitis and Autologous Islet Cell Transplant program can help you determine the cause of your pain and direct you to the right treatment.

Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas that can be caused by many conditions, including:

  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Gallstones
  • Abdominal surgery
  • Certain medications

With this condition, the inflammation gets worse over time, causing permanent damage and disrupting its function to secrete enzymes that aid digestion and hormones to regulate sugar metabolism.

What are the symptoms?

The pancreas produces enzymes and hormones that break down and digest food. It also secretes insulin that regulates the body’s glucose, or sugar, levels. With chronic pancreatitis, the inflammation gets worse over time, causing permanent damage and disrupting the function of the organ.

Most people with this condition experience upper abdominal pain. The pain may spread to the back, feel worse when eating or drinking, and as time goes on it becomes constant and disabling.

Other symptoms include the following:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • weight loss
  • diarrhea
  • oily stools

People with this condition often lose weight, even when their appetite and eating habits are normal. The weight loss occurs because the body does not secrete enough pancreatic enzymes to digest food, so nutrients are not absorbed normally. Poor digestion leads to malnutrition due to excretion of fat in the stool.


Dealing with pain from chronic pancreatitis

Constant, debilitating pain that can’t be adequately controlled with medications is the hallmark of chronic pancreatitis.

At MedStar Georgetown Transplant Institute, our team of experts can evaluate and determine the best course to relieve the pain, including the innovative option of auto islet cell transplant with total pancreatomy.

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