Our grateful thanks to the charity GUTS UK and their spokesperson Julie Thompson for their input to our radio report (which you can hear again via the audio player at the bottom of this page) and to the NHS for the use of the information below.
Acute pancreatitis is a condition where the pancreas becomes inflamed (swollen) over a short period of time.
The pancreas is a small organ, located behind the stomach, that helps with digestion.
Most people with acute pancreatitis start to feel better within about a week and have no further problems. But some people with severe acute pancreatitis can go on to develop serious complications.
Acute pancreatitis is different to chronic pancreatitis, where the pancreas has become permanently damaged from inflammation over many years.
The most common symptoms of acute pancreatitis include:
When to get medical help. See a GP immediately if you suddenly develop severe abdominal pain. If this isn't possible, contact NHS 111 for advice.
Causes of acute pancreatitis. Acute pancreatitis is most often linked to:
Whatever the cause, there is a clear link between alcohol use and acute pancreatitis.
Binge drinking – drinking a lot of alcohol in a short period of time – is also thought to increase your risk of developing acute pancreatitis.
Other causes. Less common causes of acute pancreatitis include:
Severe pancreatitis. You're probably more likely to develop severe pancreatitis if you:
By reducing how much alcohol you drink and altering your diet to make gallstones less likely, you can reduce your chances of developing acute pancreatitis.
How it's treated. Treatment for acute pancreatitis aims to help control the condition and manage any symptoms.
This usually involves admission to hospital. You may be given fluids directly into a vein (intravenous fluids), pain relief, liquid food through a tube in your tummy and oxygen through tubes in your nose.
Most people with acute pancreatitis get better within a week and are well enough to leave hospital after a few days.
Recovery can take longer in severe cases, as some people can develop complications.
Most people with acute pancreatitis recover without experiencing any further problems. But those with severe acute pancreatitis can develop serious complications such as;
Chronic pancreatitis, If you keep getting acute pancreatitis, it may eventually permanently damage your pancreas.
This is called chronic pancreatitis and is a long-term condition that can seriously affect your quality of life.
Chronic pancreatitis is a condition where the pancreas has become permanently damaged from inflammation and stops working properly.
Chronic pancreatitis can affect people of any age. It is more common in men.
It's different from acute pancreatitis, where the inflammation is only short term.
Most people with chronic pancreatitis have had 1 or more attacks of acute pancreatitis.
Symptoms of chronic pancreatitis. The most common symptom of chronic pancreatitis is repeated episodes of severe pain in your tummy (abdomen). The pain usually develops in the middle or left side of your tummy and can move along your back.
It's been described as a burning or shooting pain that comes and goes, but may last for several hours or days.
Although the pain sometimes comes on after eating a meal, there's often no trigger. Some people might feel sick and vomit.
As the condition progresses, the painful episodes may become more frequent and severe.
Eventually, a constant dull pain can develop in your tummy, between episodes of severe pain.
This is most common in people who continue to drink alcohol after being diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis.
Some people who stop drinking alcohol and stop smoking may find the pain is less severe.
Advanced chronic pancreatitis. Other symptoms develop as the damage to the pancreas progresses and it becomes unable to produce digestive juices, which help to break down food.
The absence of digestive juices means it's harder to break down fats and some proteins. This can cause your poo to become very smelly and greasy, and make it difficult to flush down the toilet.
The pancreas usually only loses these functions many years after the first symptoms started. You may also experience:
When to get medical advice. See a GP immediately if you're experiencing severe pain, as this is a warning sign that something is wrong. If this is not possible, contact NHS 111 for advice.
You should also see a GP as soon as you can if:
Diagnosing chronic pancreatitis. A GP will ask about your symptoms and may examine you. They'll refer you to a specialist for further tests if they think you have chronic pancreatitis. The specialist will be able to confirm whether you have the condition.
Tests. Tests and scans are usually carried out in your local hospital.
They may include:
Sometimes the symptoms of chronic pancreatitis can be very similar to pancreatic cancer.
You may need a biopsy, where a small sample of cells is taken from the pancreas and sent to a laboratory to be checked, to rule this out.
Causes of chronic pancreatitis
The most common cause of chronic pancreatitis is drinking excessive amounts of alcohol over many years.
This can cause repeated episodes of acute pancreatitis, which results in increasing damage to the organ.
In children the most common cause is cystic fibrosis.
Less common causes include:
In some cases, no cause can be identified. This is called idiopathic chronic pancreatitis.
Treatment for chronic pancreatitis. The damage to the pancreas is permanent, but treatment can help control the condition and manage any symptoms.
People with chronic pancreatitis are usually advised to make lifestyle changes, such as stopping drinking alcohol and stopping smoking. They're also given medicine to relieve pain.
Surgery may also be an option for those experiencing severe pain.
Living with chronic pain can cause mental as well as physical strain.
See a GP if you're experiencing stress, anxiety or depression caused by chronic pancreatitis.
Some people with chronic pancreatitis will eventually develop a type of diabetes known as type 3c diabetes.
This occurs when the pancreas can no longer produce insulin because it's become so damaged.
People with chronic pancreatitis can sometimes develop sacs of fluid on the surface of their pancreas (pseudocysts). These can cause bloating, indigestion and dull tummy pain.
These cysts often disappear on their own. But sometimes they need to be drained using a technique called endoscopic ultrasound drainage, or endoscopic transpapillary drainage.
Chronic pancreatitis increases your risk of pancreatic cancer, although the chance is still small.
Support for people living with chronic pancreatitis
Any long-term health condition, particularly one that causes recurring episodes of pain or constant pain, can affect your emotional and psychological health.
See a GP if you're experiencing psychological and emotional difficulties. There are medicines available that can help with stress, anxiety and depression.
Talking to other people with the same condition can often reduce feelings of isolation and stress. GUTS UK offers help and support for people living with chronic pancreatitis.
Listen to this weeks radio report
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