The pancreas is an organ located next to the stomach and small intestine. It has two main functions, the production of insulin (that controls blood glucose levels) and the production of enzymes for digestion.
Pancreatitis is inflammation of this organ, disrupting its function and causing severe pain.
90% of cases do not have a specific identifiable cause.
It is mainly an acute condition and can sometimes be a fatal disease in severe cases but is usually treatable with a period of hospitalisation.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the symptoms of pancreatitis?
The symptoms are often non-specific and can be caused by a variety of conditions, so further investigation is warranted to provide a more conclusive diagnosis.
Symptoms include (but are not limited to):
- Anorexia (reduction in appetite)
- Vomiting (sometimes with diarrhoea)
- Abdominal pain (sometimes adopting the “prayer position”)
- Dehydration (sticky gums and a skin tent can be symptoms of dehydration)
How do you diagnose pancreatitis?
A thorough discussion of the onset and nature of the problem is required.
In addition, a clinical examination may reveal some of the symptoms above, but not in every case.
Further tests are often required including:
General screening test - pancreatitis usually gives non-specific changes to the general profile, but is useful to rule out other conditions.
A specific pancreas inflammation test (cPLI) can be run inhouse to give a more sensitive and specific indication that pancreatitis is present. This needs to be interpreted with other findings as can sometimes give a false positive or negative result.
Ultrasound examination of the abdomen can be very helpful to examine the pancreas for swelling and structural changes and eliminate other abdominal diseases. This is especially valuable when performed by a specialist ultra-sonographer.
Abdominal radiographs (x-rays) can be used to eliminate other conditions, pancreatitis itself can cause a lack of definition in the front part of the abdomen on the X-ray, but no specific findings are usually found.
How is pancreatitis treated?
Pancreatitis can be a challenging condition to treat and usually needs intensive care in hospital for a number of days, sometimes up to a week or more can be needed in more severe cases.
Treatments that are usually required include:
Intravenous fluid therapy
This is the most important factor in the management of this disease to replace ongoing fluid loss (especially if vomiting or has diarrhoea), correct electrolyte imbalances and to maintain good pancreatic blood flow.
If not instigated early this can be a significant cause of treatment failure.
Pancreatitis (as in humans) is a very painful condition that initially intravenous strong opiate pain relief is needed to control this painful condition.
Reduction of acid production in the stomach can help to reduce nausea and prevent secondary complications such as oesophagitis and gastric ulceration.
Anti-nausea (anti-emetic) treatment
Preventing further vomiting and stimulating appetite helps speed recovery.
Antibiotics are indicated to help prevent secondary infections
- Sometimes patients that do not eat during treatment require an indwelling feeding tube to be placed under anaesthetic so that food can be given to anorexic patients.
- Intake of a low-fat diet has been shown to significantly improve acute cases of pancreatitis, and to help prevent recurrence in the future.
- Eliminating fatty treats is also crucial to maintaining the effectiveness of this diet.