Pancreatitis is inflammation in the pancreas. The pancreas is a long, flat gland that sits tucked behind the stomach in the upper abdomen. The pancreas produces enzymes that assist digestion and hormones that help regulate the way your body processes sugar (glucose).
Pancreatitis can occur as acute pancreatitis — meaning it appears suddenly and lasts for days. Or pancreatitis can occur as chronic pancreatitis, which describes pancreatitis that occurs over many years.
Mild cases of pancreatitis may go away without treatment, but severe cases can cause life-threatening complications.
What happens in pancreatitis
Pancreatitis occurs when digestive enzymes produced in your pancreas become activated while inside the pancreas, causing damage to the organ.
During normal digestion, the inactivated pancreatic enzymes move through ducts in your pancreas and travel to the small intestine, where the enzymes become activated and help with digestion. In pancreatitis, the enzymes become activated while still in the pancreas. This causes the enzymes to irritate the cells of your pancreas, causing inflammation and the signs and symptoms associated with pancreatitis.
With repeated bouts of acute pancreatitis, damage to the pancreas can occur and lead to chronic pancreatitis. Scar tissue may form in the pancreas, causing loss of function. A poorly functioning pancreas can cause digestion problems and diabetes.
Pancreatitis has many causes
A number of causes have been identified for acute pancreatitis and chronic pancreatitis, including:
- Abdominal surgery
- Certain medications
- Cigarette smoking
- Cystic fibrosis
- Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), when used to treat gallstones
- Family history of pancreatitis
- High calcium levels in the blood (hypercalcemia), which may be caused by an overactive parathyroid gland (hyperparathyroidism)
- High triglyceride levels in the blood (hypertriglyceridemia)
- Injury to the abdomen
- Pancreatic cancer
Signs and symptoms of pancreatitis may vary, depending on which type you experience.
Acute pancreatitis signs and symptoms include:
- Upper abdominal pain
- Abdominal pain that radiates to your back
- Abdominal pain that feels worse after eating
- Tenderness when touching the abdomen
Chronic pancreatitis signs and symptoms include:
- Upper abdominal pain
- Losing weight without trying
- Oily, smelly stools (steatorrhea)
When to see a doctor
Make an appointment with your doctor if you have persistent abdominal pain. Seek immediate medical help if your abdominal pain is so severe that you can’t sit still or find a position that makes you more comfortable.