What is pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas, an organ in your belly that makes the hormones insulin and glucagon. These two hormones control how your body uses the sugar found in the food you eat. Your pancreas also makes other hormones and enzymes that help you break down food.
The digestive enzymes are produced in one part of the pancreas and travel into the bowel along a duct. If the duct is blocked or injured, these enzymes can leak out and cause pain and swelling. This may happen suddenly or over many years. Over time, it can damage and scar the pancreas.
What causes pancreatitis?
Most cases are caused by gallstones or heavy alcohol use. The disease can also be caused by an injury, an infection, or certain medicines.
Long-term, or chronic, pancreatitis may occur after one attack. But it can also happen over many years. In Western countries, heavy alcohol use is the most common cause of chronic cases.
In some cases doctors don't know what caused the disease.
What are the symptoms?
The main symptom of pancreatitis is medium to severe pain in the upper belly. Pain may also spread to the middle of your back.
Some people have other symptoms too, such as nausea, vomiting, a fever, and sweating.
How is pancreatitis diagnosed?
Your doctor will do a physical examination and ask you questions about your symptoms and past health. You may also have blood tests to see if your levels of certain enzymes are higher than normal. This can mean that you have pancreatitis.
Your doctor may also want you to have a complete blood count (CBC), a liver test, or a stool test.
Other tests include a CT scan, or an ultrasound of your belly (abdominal ultrasound) to look for gallstones. Sometimes a special MRI test (magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP) ) is used to look for signs of blocked ducts as the cause of the pancreatitis.
A test called endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatogram, or ERCP, may help your doctor see if you have chronic pancreatitis. During this test, the doctor can also remove gallstones that are stuck in the bile duct.
How is it treated?
Most attacks of pancreatitis need treatment in the hospital. Your doctor will give you pain medicine and fluids through a vein (IV) until the pain and swelling go away.
Fluids and air can build up in your stomach when there are problems with your pancreas. This buildup can cause severe vomiting. If buildup occurs, your doctor may place a tube through your nose and into your stomach to remove the extra fluids and air. This will help make the pancreas less active and swollen.
Although most people get well after an attack of pancreatitis, problems can occur. Problems may include cysts, infection, or death of tissue in the pancreas.
You may need surgery to remove your gallbladder or a part of the pancreas that has been damaged.
If your pancreas has been severely damaged, you may need to take insulin to help your body control blood sugar. You also may need to take pancreatic enzyme pills to help your body digest fat and protein.
If you have chronic pancreatitis, you will need to follow a low-fat diet and stop drinking alcohol. You may also take medicine to manage your pain. Making changes like these may seem hard. But with planning, talking with your doctor, and getting support from family and friends, these changes are possible.
Normally, the structure of the pancreas and the pancreatic duct prevent digestive enzymes from damaging the pancreas. But certain conditions can develop that cause damage and pancreatitis.
Most attacks of pancreatitis are caused by gallstones that block the flow of pancreatic enzymes or by excessive amounts of alcohol. Sudden (acute) pancreatitis may happen after a drinking binge or after many episodes of heavy drinking.
Other causes of acute pancreatitis are:
Sometimes the cause is not known.
Excessive alcohol use is the most common cause of ongoing pancreatitis (chronic pancreatitis).footnote 1
Other causes of chronic pancreatitis include cystic fibrosis or a blockage in the pancreas. Chronic pancreatitis may run in families. And smoking cigarettes seems to increase the risk for this disease. In about 1 out of 4 cases, doctors aren't sure what causes it.footnote 2
Experts don't know how alcohol irritates the pancreas. Most believe that alcohol either causes enzymes to back up into the pancreas or changes the chemistry of the enzymes, causing them to inflame the pancreas.
The main symptom of sudden (acute) pancreatitis is sudden moderate to severe pain in the upper area of the belly (abdomen). Sometimes the pain is mild. But the pain may feel as though it bores through the abdomen to the back. Sitting up or leaning forward sometimes reduces the pain. Other symptoms of an attack of pancreatitis are:
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Fast heart rate.
- Yellowing of the skin or the whites of the eyes (jaundice).
Long-term (chronic) pancreatitis also causes pain in the upper abdomen.
Other conditions that have similar symptoms include bowel obstruction, appendicitis, cholecystitis, peptic ulcer disease, and diverticulitis.
Pancreatitis usually appears as a sudden (acute) attack of pain in the upper area of the belly (abdomen). The disease may be mild or severe.
Most people with pancreatitis have mild acute pancreatitis. The disease does not affect their other organs, and these people recover without problems. In most cases, the disease goes away within a week after treatment begins. Treatment takes place in the hospital with pain medicines and intravenous (IV) fluids. After inflammation goes away, the pancreas usually returns to normal.
In some cases, pancreatic tissue is permanently damaged or even dies (necrosis). These complications increase the risk of infection and organ failure.
In severe cases, pancreatitis can be fatal.
Long-term pancreatitis (chronic pancreatitis) may occur after one or more episodes of acute pancreatitis. The most common cause of chronic pancreatitis is long-term heavy alcohol use.
What happens during the course of chronic pancreatitis varies. Ongoing pain and complications often occur. Complications may include flare-ups of symptoms, fluid buildup, and blockage of a blood vessel, the bile duct, or the small intestine.
If much of your pancreatic tissue has died, you may become malnourished. This happens because the pancreas no longer produces enzymes needed to digest fat and protein. So fat is released into your stool. This condition, called steatorrhea, causes loose, pale, unusually foul-smelling stools that may float in the toilet bowl.
If the damaged pancreas stops making enough insulin, you also may develop diabetes.
Chronic pancreatitis increases the risk of pancreatic cancer. About 4 out of 100 people with chronic pancreatitis develop this cancer.footnote 1
What Increases Your Risk
Several things can increase your risk of pancreatitis, including:
- Alcohol misuse. The amount needed to cause pancreatitis is not known. Alcohol tolerance varies from one person to another. Moderate consumption is considered no more than 3 alcoholic beverages a day for men and 2 a day for women and older people.
- A family history of pancreatitis.
- A high level of fat (triglycerides) in the blood.
- Gallstones. A small gallstone can move far enough into the bile duct to block the flow of pancreatic enzymes into the small intestine.
- Having cystic fibrosis.
- Smoking cigarettes.
- Structural problems of the pancreas or the bile and pancreatic ducts, especially a condition in which the pancreas is divided and has two main ducts (pancreas divisum).
- Taking certain medicines, including estrogen therapy and some antibiotics.
When To Call
Call your doctor now if you have:
- Severe belly pain with vomiting that does not go away after a few hours.
Call your doctor if you have:
- Mild to moderate pain that does not improve with home treatment after a couple of days.
Examinations and Tests
If your doctor thinks you have pancreatitis, he or she will ask questions about your medical history and do a physical examination along with lab and imaging tests.
Two blood tests that measure enzymes are used to diagnose an attack of pancreatitis. These tests are:
- Serum amylase. An increase of amylase in the blood usually indicates pancreatitis.
- Serum lipase. Sudden (acute) pancreatitis almost always raises the level of lipase in the blood.
Other blood tests may be done, such as:
Imaging tests that may be done include:
- CT scan with contrast dye. A CT scan can help rule out other causes of abdominal pain, determine whether tissue is dying (pancreatic necrosis), and find complications such as fluid around the pancreas, blocked veins, and obstructed bowels.
- Abdominal ultrasound. This test can locate gallstones. It also can show an enlarged common bile duct.
- Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatogram (ERCP). This procedure allows the doctor to see the structure of the common bile duct, other bile ducts, and the pancreatic duct. ERCP is the only diagnostic test that also can be used to treat narrow areas (strictures) of the bile ducts and remove gallstones from the common bile duct.
- Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatogram (MRCP). This form of MRI can detect gallstones in the common bile duct. This test is not available everywhere.
- Endoscopic ultrasound. In this form of ultrasound, a probe attached to a lighted scope is placed down the throat and into the stomach. Sound waves show images of organs in the abdomen. Endoscopic ultrasound may reveal gallstones in the common bile duct.
- MRI. Sometimes an MRI is used to look for signs of pancreatitis. It provides information similar to that of a CT scan.
If your doctor is not sure whether your pancreatic tissue is infected, he or she may use a needle to take some fluid from the inflamed area. The fluid is then tested for organisms that can cause infection.
In severe, chronic pancreatitis, a stool analysis may be done to look for fat in stools, which is a sign that you may not be getting enough nutrition. This happens when the pancreas no longer produces the enzymes you need to digest fat.
Treatment of pancreatitis depends on whether you have a sudden (acute) attack of pancreatitis or you have had the condition for a long time (chronic).
For acute pancreatitis. You will receive treatment in the hospital to allow the pancreas to heal. You will receive intravenous (IV) fluids to replace lost fluids and maintain your blood pressure. And you will get medicines to control pain until the inflammation goes away.
To help rest your pancreas, you likely will not be given anything to eat for several days.
If gallstones are causing pancreatitis, you may have a procedure called endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatogram (ERCP) to remove the stones from the common bile duct. After recovering from pancreatitis, you may have surgery to remove the gallbladder. This surgery often prevents future attacks of pancreatitis. For more information, see the Surgery section of this topic.
For chronic pancreatitis. People who have chronic pancreatitis also may have episodes of acute pancreatitis, which are treated the same as an initial episode of acute pancreatitis.
Excessive use of alcohol is the most common cause of chronic pancreatitis. It is extremely important that you not drink any alcohol. Drinking even small amounts can cause severe pain and complications. Drinking large amounts of alcohol when you have chronic pancreatitis can shorten your life. For more information on quitting alcohol, see the topic Alcohol: Drinking and Your Health.
If you have chronic pancreatitis, you may struggle with ongoing pain. Treatment for pain includes avoiding alcohol, eating a low-fat diet, using pain medicine, and in some cases taking enzyme pills to help rest your pancreas.
You may need surgery or another procedure to widen a narrow pancreatic duct or to remove tissue or stones that are blocking the pancreatic duct. Surgery can also drain a pseudocyst or an obstructed duct.
Your doctor will want to see you regularly to make sure that your pain medicine is helping you and that you do not have complications of chronic pancreatitis. Complications of chronic pancreatitis may include recurring flare-ups of symptoms, fluid buildup, and blockage of a blood vessel, the bile duct, or the small intestine. Chronic pancreatitis also increases your risk of pancreatic cancer.
Treatment if the condition gets worse
In advanced chronic pancreatitis, your body may not absorb fat. This causes loose, oily, especially foul-smelling stools (called steatorrhea). You may lose weight as a result, because your pancreas no longer produces the enzymes you need to digest fat and protein. Pancreatic enzyme pills can replace lost enzymes.
You may need insulin if your pancreas has stopped producing enough of it.
If infection develops, you may need antibiotics and you might have surgery to remove the infected and dead tissue. But surgery is avoided when possible, because the pancreas is damaged easily.
You may need surgery if you develop complications from acute or chronic pancreatitis. Surgery also may be done if there is no infection and your condition has not improved.
You cannot completely prevent pancreatitis caused by gallstones. But you may be able to reduce your risk of forming gallstones by staying at a healthy weight with a balanced diet and regular exercise. For more information, see the topic Gallstones.
You can reduce your chance of having pancreatitis by not drinking alcohol excessively. The amount of alcohol needed to cause pancreatitis varies from one person to another. Generally, moderate consumption is considered no more than 3 alcoholic beverages a day for men and 2 a day for women and older people.
Smoking may increase your chance of having pancreatitis. If you smoke, it's a good idea to quit.
If you have ongoing (chronic) pancreatitis caused by excessive use of alcohol, you will need to quit drinking to reduce severe pain and complications. Drinking large amounts when you have chronic pancreatitis can shorten your life. For more information on quitting alcohol, see the topic Alcohol: Drinking and Your Health.
Although the role of diet in pancreatitis is not clear, doctors recommend eating a low-fat diet and staying at a healthy body weight.
In addition to pain medicine, people who have chronic illness may take pancreatic enzymes and insulin because their damaged pancreas no longer produces enough of these.
You may need one or more medicines to treat chronic pancreatitis. Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
- Pain medicine. Mild pain is first treated with a medicine such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. If you have stronger pain, you may be given an opioid pain reliever.
- Pancreatic enzyme supplements. In advanced chronic pancreatitis, the pancreas may stop producing the enzymes needed to digest fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. Enzyme supplements at meals can help the body digest fats, allowing you to retain nutrients and gain weight.
- Insulin. Advanced chronic pancreatitis can lead to diabetes if the part of the pancreas that produces insulin becomes damaged.
What to think about
Side effects of pancreatic enzymes that are given to treat chronic pancreatitis include abdominal (belly) discomfort and soreness of the mouth and the anus. People who are allergic to pork or who do not eat pork for other reasons should not take these enzymes, because they are made of pork protein. In young children, high doses of pancreatic enzymes could cause a bowel obstruction.
Surgery of the pancreas is avoided, if possible, because the gland is easily damaged. But surgery may be needed to remove infected or damaged tissue (pancreatic necrosis). The gallbladder may be removed to prevent future attacks from gallstones.
One of two surgeries can be done to remove the gallbladder if gallstones are causing pancreatitis:
Surgeons may choose among several techniques to remove damaged pancreatic tissue.
- Forsmark CE (2010). Chronic pancreatitis. In M Feldman et al., eds., Sleisenger and Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease, 9th ed., vol. 1, pp. 985–1015. Philadelphia: Saunders.
- Cote G, et al. (2011). Alcohol and smoking as risk factors in an epidemiology study of patients with chronic pancreatitis. Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, 9(3): 266–273.
Current as of: June 6, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Brian D. O'Brien MD - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Peter J. Kahrilas MD - Gastroenterology