Wondering if you have pancreatitis? While not a common illness, it can cause a great deal of pain and discomfort. Because the symptoms of pancreatitis are similar to other digestive disorders including biliary colic, peptic ulcer disease, and irritable bowel syndrome, it is important to understand symptoms that may be specific to your pancreas, as well as underlying causes.
What is it?
First of all, you may be wondering what your pancreas actually does. The pancreas is part of the digestive tract. It has ducts that empty into the upper part of the intestines, called the duodenum. The pancreas produces two main types of substances: digestive juices, which help break down proteins and fats that are being digested, and digestive enzymes and hormones such as insulin, which are released into the blood to help control blood sugar levels.
Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas. Inflammation is part of the body’s way of dealing with foreign substances like viruses or bacteria. When the pancreas becomes inflamed it can lead to swelling, and spread to the surrounding area, causing bleeding, infection, and eventual damage to the pancreas.
Types of Pancreatitis
There are two basic types of pancreatitis: acute and chronic. The symptoms of both can range from mild to severe.
- Acute – this form appears suddenly, and is usually is the result of gallstones. It may also be caused by chronic alcoholism, infections, trauma or injury to the abdomen, or reactions to certain medicines. This form of pancreatitis can be life-threatening, but often resolves within a short amount of time with treatment.
- Chronic – often begins as acute pain, but is due to more long-term damage. Chronic pancreatitis is often the result of chronic drinking rather than an illness such as gallstones. It can also be due to inherited disorders, cystic fibrosis, high levels of calcium in the blood, and certain autoimmune diseases. This form of pancreatitis has a risk of long-term effects.
The symptoms of acute pancreatitis often come on more suddenly and are more severe than those of the chronic condition. Either form usually involves pain in the upper abdomen that comes on either suddenly or gradually. It may extend to the back as well. Because the pain may be worse after eating, pancreatitis pain can be confused with biliary colic (gallstone attacks).
However, pancreatic pain will grow worse and become constant, sometimes lasting for several days. It may also be accompanied by:
- Racing pulse
- Tender, swollen abdomen
A person with acute pancreatitis often looks very ill and needs immediate medical attention.
Chronic pancreatitis begins with similar pain, but that pain may disappear as the condition worsens. Other symptoms will include diarrhea, oily stools, and weight loss. This is due to poor digestion due to the lack of digestive enzymes.
Biliary Colic or Pancreatitis?
The cause of biliary colic and pancreatitis is often the same: gallstones. Because of the location of both the pancreas and the bile ducts, their pain may be similar. A few minor differences may be noticed:
- Pain Duration – pain from pancreatitis tends to be constant, while biliary colic pain tends to come and go: it is more “colicky.” This may be because biliary pain is often caused by the gallbladder trying to force bile through blocked bile ducts.
- Fever – is far more common in pancreatitis than biliary colic.
- Location – biliary colic pain can often be directly on the right side.
If you are unsure of the source of your symptoms, or you are feeling debilitating pain, see a doctor immediately. Cases of acute pancreatitis need immediate attention.