What are the Warning Signs and Symptoms of Pancreatitis?

Medicare Benefits Solutions

Sep 6, 2022

Have you ever experienced stomach pain, tenderness, fever, or nausea? These are just a few of the potential warning signs of pancreatitis.

Your pancreas is located in your abdomen, right behind your stomach. This glandular organ is only six inches long but it’s extremely important because it produces enzymes that aid digestion and control blood sugar.

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What Does a Pancreas Do?

When the pancreas is functioning properly, it releases lipase, amylase, and protease. These are enzymes that break down fats, carbs, and proteins respectively. This function ensures proper digestion and nutrient intake from the food you eat.

At the same time, the pancreas is helping you with digestion, it also releases insulin and glucagon, enzymes that reduce or increase blood sugar levels. Balanced blood sugar levels are vital for all the other bodily systems to function well.

You can keep your pancreas healthy by eating a low-fat diet, quitting smoking, watching your weight, and limiting your alcohol intake. A properly functioning pancreas is not only important to your overall health (especially during your senior years), but it also helps avoid inflammation and illnesses like pancreatitis.

TIP: Read our blog on how to recognize the early warning signs of high blood sugar.

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What is Pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis can be the result of an inflamed, or swollen, pancreas. This inflammation occurs when the enzymes that the pancreas naturally produces begin working within the organ rather than after leaving it, as they should. This abnormality can be caused by gallstones or excessive alcohol consumption, for instance.

If the pancreas becomes inflamed, these enzymes can damage its tissue, and it can release harmful cells and toxins that may also damage your lungs, kidneys, and heart.

There are two types of pancreatitis:

Acute pancreatitis

Acute pancreatitis begins suddenly and is typically a short-term case that clears up within a few days after treatment begins. However, in some instances of acute pancreatitis hospitalization is necessary. A case of acute pancreatitis can become chronic in certain situations, especially for those who smoke or drink a lot of alcohol.

Chronic pancreatitis

Pancreatitis is a chronic condition if it comes and goes regularly or if it persists for a long period of time and can cause permanent damage to the pancreas. It can also damage cells responsible for the production of insulin which can result in diabetes.

You might be at a higher risk of getting acute or chronic pancreatitis if:

  • You smoke
  • Drink more than one drink per day if you’re a female
  • Drink more than two drinks per day if you’re a male
  • Are African American
  • Have a family history of cancer, inflammation, or other pancreatic conditions

What Causes Pancreatitis?

As mentioned above, you can get pancreatitis when its enzymes activate within the pancreas rather than outside of it. This irritates the cells of the pancreas triggering inflammation.

But what causes those enzymes to activate inside the pancreas? Here are some of the most common triggers:

  • Gallstones or gallbladder disease
  • Excessive consumption of alcohol
  • Some medications like estrogens, steroids, or thiazide diuretics
  • Elevated blood triglyceride levels
  • Elevated calcium levels (hypercalcemia) often caused by hyperparathyroidism
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Abdominal surgery or injury to the abdomen
  • Infections such as hepatitis A or B, mumps, or salmonella
  • Obesity
  • Trauma
  • A procedure that’s used to treat gallstones called endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP)
  • Tumor
  • Certain genetic defects
  • Smoking
  • Congenital abnormalities of the pancreas

What Are the Symptoms of Pancreatitis?

While symptoms can differ from one case to another, most people who have either acute or chronic pancreatitis have pain in their middle to the left upper abdomen. This can be the only or the main signal for pancreatitis.

Symptoms and signals of acute pancreatitis can include:

  • Mild to severe pain that may begin slowly or suddenly in the upper abdomen and can spread to the back. The pain can last several days.
  • Fever
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • A swollen or tender abdomen
  • Fast heart rate
  • Jaundice (skin and eyes have a yellow tinge, urine is darker, and feces is lighter colored than normal)

Symptoms and signals of chronic pancreatitis can include:

  • Pain in the upper abdomen that can spread to the back
  • No pain at all in some instances
  • Pain that worsens after eating
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Weight loss
  • Steatorrhea (stools that are fatty and smell bad. This is a sign that digestive enzymes aren’t reaching your food or aren’t sufficient for proper digestion and nutrient absorption.

How is Pancreatitis Diagnosed?

If you have symptoms of pancreatitis, you should make an appointment to see your physician immediately. During the visit, your health care provider will ask for your medical history information and give you a physical examination. Next, he may order lab work and blood tests and a urinalysis which are covered by Medicare when they are medically necessary. He may also order any of the following types of imaging tests:

How is Pancreatitis Treated?

When your physician diagnoses pancreatitis, treatment for it initially involves an inpatient stay in the hospital. There, you are put on a low-fat diet or a feeding tube and IV if you can’t eat. You may also receive pain medication as well as antibiotics to treat possible infections.

If you have acute pancreatitis, you should feel better after a few days of the prescribed treatment and rest. If your illness was caused by gallstones, you may need surgery to remove your gallbladder.

If you have chronic pancreatitis, your health care provider may also prescribe the following treatments:

  • Enzyme pills to aid digestion
  • Vitamins A, D, C, and K for malabsorption, and B12 if needed
  • Diabetes treatment if chronic pancreatitis has caused diabetes, or if complications from diabetes have caused your pancreatitis.
  • Surgery if it’s necessary to remove a blockage from the pancreatic duct, to relieve pressure from the duct, or to remove damaged pancreatic tissue. In extreme cases, your surgeon may remove your entire pancreas and give you follow-up treatment.

Successful treatment for chronic pancreatitis also includes making lifestyle changes. It’s important that you stop smoking, avoid alcohol, and eat lighter meals that are low in fat and high in protein.

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What are the Complications of Pancreatitis?

Cases of acute pancreatitis typically get better after treatment and without serious complications aside from possible fluid retention around the pancreas.

Chronic cases of pancreatitis may also get better after treatment, but there is a higher risk of complications that can include the following:

  • Diabetes
  • Weight loss
  • Chronic diarrhea
  • Chronic pain
  • Malnutrition, malabsorption, and vitamin deficiencies
  • A build-up of fluid around the pancreas
  • Blockages of the bile duct
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Kidney problems or renal failure that may require dialysis
  • Reduced lung function leading to low blood oxygen levels
  • Susceptibility to pancreatic infection

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How to Keep Your Pancreas Healthy

If you’re recovering from a bout of pancreatitis, it’s vital that you take care of yourself and follow your physician’s recommendations.

The most important factor to get back to normal is following a healthy, low-fat, balanced diet. The pancreas and gallbladder are especially sensitive to foods that contain fat, so monitoring the amount of fat you eat is vital to health.

You should consider cutting down on, or cutting out completely, the following foods:

  • Fatty meats
  • Fried foods
  • Full-fat dairy products
  • Sugar
  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol

To get your digestive tract back in order after pancreatitis, you should avoid heavy meals. Try eating smaller, lighter meals that are high in lean protein and nutritious vegetables and fruits. And even if it’s an overused cliché, it’s important to remember: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!

Start watching your health and making lifestyle changes today to prevent illnesses like pancreatitis. Simple changes like quitting smoking, cutting down on alcohol consumption, watching your weight, and eating a healthier diet can go a long way to reducing your risk for pancreatitis, or help you recover from it faster.

TIP: Find out which plans offer the best coverage for pancreatitis and other health conditions and compare them against your current Medicare plan.

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