Pancreatitis: What It Is, Causes, Symptoms, Diet & Treatment

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Medically Reviewed By:
Mark Arredondo, M.D.

Pancreatitis is a distressing ailment that occurs when the pancreas, a crucial organ that helps to digest food and control blood sugar levels, becomes swollen and irritated. This article will explore what pancreatitis is, both acute and chronic.

Discover what sets off this condition, it telltale signs and the diverse approaches to treatment, including medical procedures, self-care techniques and a targeted pancreatitis diet.

What is pancreatitis?

Located behind the stomach in the upper belly, the pancreas produces digestive enzymes and regulates sugar-processing hormones, crucial for well-being.

Simply put, pancreatitis is the redness and swelling (inflammation) of the pancreas that occurs when digestive juices or enzymes go after the organ, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. It is painful, and symptoms can trigger questions such as "Can you die from pancreatitis?" and "What does pancreatitis feel like?"

The unfortunate truth is that you can die from complications of acute pancreatitis if it’s very severe, according to the Cleveland Clinic. In a minority of individuals, intense acute pancreatitis triggers a widespread response that affects the entire body. This can lead to shock and failure of various organs, which could turn fatal if swift intervention doesn’t occur.

Types of pancreatitis

Acute pancreatitis arrives suddenly, and its impact is felt over days. Chronic pancreatitis, meanwhile, unfolds gradually, spanning years.

Mild instances of pancreatitis often respond well to treatment, but the stakes escalate with severe cases. These can unleash life-threatening complications.

Dr. Emily Winslow, regional chief of hepatopancreaticobiliary surgery with MedStar Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C., elaborates in a hospital video.

“Pain from pancreatitis, for most people, is in the upper abdomen and often radiates to the back between the shoulder blades up high in the back and is what typical acute pancreatitis pain is like," she explained.

Once patients develop chronic pain, it's much more difficult, Winslow said.

“When patients with pancreatitis have episodes of pain, sometimes it's clear what’s caused them," she said in the video. "So, maybe alcohol. Sometimes, certain foods or fatty foods where you need more pancreas enzymes to digest them. But many times, frustratingly, for patients, it's not clear why the pancreas gets more inflamed on some days than others.”

What causes pancreatitis?

The U.S. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases notes that both acute and chronic pancreatitis primarily stem from several key factors. The most prevalent triggers include:

  • Gallstones
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Genetic anomalies in the pancreas
  • Certain medications

Furthermore, pancreatitis can also be provoked by:

Other contributors include:

  • Obstructions in the pancreatic duct
  • Elevated blood lipid levels (lipids)
  • Abnormally high blood calcium levels

In some instances, the root cause of pancreatitis remains elusive, a scenario called idiopathic pancreatitis.

Pancreatitis symptoms

Pancreatitis is characterized by intense discomfort. A leading symptom of pancreatitis is pain that strikes the upper left side or middle of the abdomen, according to Penn Medicine. This pain pattern manifests in various ways:

  • Rapid escalation after meals, especially those rich in fats
  • Gradual intensification, persisting for days
  • Aggravation when lying flat on the back
  • Discomfort radiating to the back or beneath the left shoulder blade

Those with acute pancreatitis tend to look sickly and may experience fever, nausea, vomiting and profuse sweating.

Additional symptoms include:

  • Pale stools
  • Abdominal bloating and fullness
  • Hiccups
  • Indigestion
  • Mild yellowing of the eyes (scleral icterus) and skin (jaundice)
  • Abdominal swelling

Can a specific pancreatitis diet help with symptoms?

Dr. Prabhleen Chahal is a pancreas specialist at the Cleveland Clinic. In a clinic article, she said: “Paying close attention to your diet can help ease abdominal pain that accompanies this condition. If you choose your food well, you can give your pancreas a break and help it recover."

Chahal recommends a diet high in protein from lean meats and low in animal fats and simple sugars. She suggests you consume:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Beans, lentils
  • Low-fat or nonfat dairy (almond or flax milk)

Further, those with pancreatitis should avoid these foods:

  • Red meat
  • Organ meat
  • Mayonnaise
  • Margarine, butter
  • Full-fat dairy
  • French fries and potato chips
  • Pastries
  • Sugary drinks such as soda and fruit juices

Pancreatitis treatment

The Mayo Clinic notes that pancreatitis treatments at the hospital encompass:

  • Early eating: Current data indicates that eating as soon as food can be tolerated aids healing.
  • Fluid intake: As your pancreas recuperates, transitioning to clear liquids and bland foods is essential. Gradually, a return to your regular diet becomes possible.
  • Pain management: Severe pain is common with pancreatitis. Your medical team will administer pain-relieving medications.
  • Intravenous (IV) fluids: The strain on your body during pancreatitis repair can lead to dehydration. Additional fluids are provided through a vein in your arm during your hospital stay.

Once the inflammation subsides, addressing the root cause will be the focus of your medical team. Treatment may include:

  • Procedures to resolve bile duct obstructions
  • Pancreas-specific interventions
  • Approaches to managing alcohol dependence
  • Alterations in medications

Pancreatitis surgery

The Cleveland Clinic says that tumors and pancreatitis are the primary reasons for recommending pancreatectomy, a surgical procedure. Different types of pancreas surgeries exist, often tailored to the location of the issue within the fish-like shape of the pancreas: head, body and tail.

  • Distal pancreatectomy: This surgery removes the tail of the pancreas and sometimes the body. The tail is closely linked to the spleen, which may also be removed.
  • Central pancreatectomy: A rare procedure, it removes the central body while preserving the head and tail. It's considered if localized removal is feasible.
  • Pancreaticoduodenectomy (Whipple procedure): This operation removes the head of the pancreas, part of the small intestine and related structures. The digestive system is then reconnected.
  • Total pancreatectomy: When the disease affects the entire pancreas or its healthy tissue is scarce, the entire organ is removed. This involves excising nearby organs, vessels, and lymph nodes. Reconnections are made to maintain digestive continuity.

Pancreatitis self-care

Taking charge of your well-being with pancreatitis involves adopting practical self-care measures. By embracing these pancreatitis self-care steps, you can manage the condition and curtail the risk of inflammation:

  • Dietary awareness: Opt for a low-fat diet, avoiding greasy and fried foods.
  • Hydration: Drink ample fluids to prevent dehydration and support healing.
  • Moderate alcohol: If permitted by your health care provider, limit alcohol consumption. In many cases, you may be expected to abstain from alcohol altogether.
  • Medication compliance: Take prescribed medications diligently to control pain and inflammation.
  • Healthy lifestyle: Maintaining a balanced weight and exercise routine fosters overall health.
  • Avoid triggers: Identify and steer clear of foods or activities that exacerbate symptoms.
  • Regular check-ins: Stay connected with your medical team for ongoing guidance and adjustments to your self-care plan.

Living with pancreatitis

Navigating life with pancreatitis does mean taking charge and making some proactive choices. NYU Langone Health offers insights to help you be more successful in living with the illness:

  • Pancreatitis diet: Prioritize a low-fat diet to alleviate strain on the pancreas.
  • Weight management: Maintain a healthy weight to reduce the risk of gallstones.
  • Alcohol abstinence: Steer clear of alcohol to safeguard your pancreas.
  • Smoking cessation: Quit smoking to shield against further complications.

By embracing these recommendations, you forge a path toward improved health and an enhanced quality of life while managing pancreatitis.


Better Health Channel: Pancreas

John Hopkins Medicine: Pancreatitis

Cleveland Clinic: Pancreatitis

Cleveland Clinic: Pancreatectomy

Mayo Clinic: Pancreatitis

MedStar Georgetown University Hospital: Symptoms and Causes of Pancreatitis: Dr. Emily Winslow

U.S. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: Symptoms & Causes of Pancreatitis

U.S. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography (ERCP)

Loma Linda University Health: Pancreas Divisum

Penn Medicine: Pancreatitis

Cleveland Clinic Health Essentials: Best (and Worst) Foods for Pancreatitis Pain

NYU Langone Health: Lifestyle Modifications for Pancreatitis

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