September 8, 2020

Signs of pancreatitis: What to know about the condition

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Learn the signs of pancreatitis, how to minimize your risk, and what to do if you experience symptoms.

Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas, an important gland behind the stomach that aids digestion and regulates blood sugar. Proper functioning of the pancreas is critical to our health. That’s why pancreatitis is a serious condition and the signs of pancreatitis should not be ignored because they lead to complications if not treated. But the symptoms of abdominal pain and nausea can easily be confused with other conditions like indigestion or a stomach bug.

“It’s really important for patients to have a primary care provider,” said Kira Soldani, NP, an advanced practice provider in surgical oncology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “That way, if they were to experience symptoms consistent with pancreatitis, their primary care provider can refer them to a pancreas specialist.”

Two types of pancreatitis and their symptoms

Pancreatitis can be acute or chronic. “Acute pancreatitis is typically going to be an isolated incident,” Soldani said. “Most of those patients will present with abdominal pain, and that abdominal pain will also be precluded by nausea and vomiting.” The pain may radiate from your mid-abdomen to your back, she added. The symptoms and signs of pancreatitis typically get worse after eating, and you may also experience a fever.

“Symptoms of chronic pancreatitis can really range widely from those subtle and acute abdominal episodes to really mild,” Soldani explained, but they will affect a patient long term. Symptoms may include vomiting, a constant dull pain, abdominal tenderness and unexplained weight loss. Chronic pancreatitis is a risk factor for pancreatic cancer and should be closely monitored.

Causes of pancreatitis

Acute pancreatitis is often a result of gallstones causing an obstruction in the bile duct. “When we eat, our pancreas releases enzymes which help to break down fat, carbohydrates and proteins,” Soldani explained. “So if the duct from the pancreas is blocked, those enzymes are unable to release into the bowel tract.” Acute pancreatitis can also be related to alcohol consumption, Soldani added. When we metabolize alcohol, our bodies produce by-products that can cause inflammation in the pancreas. Chronic pancreatitis is most often related to drinking alcohol. “In those particular patients,” Soldani said, “typically inflammation does not resolve and has long-term effects.”

Reducing your risk

In some cases, pancreatitis is idiopathic, meaning the cause is unknown, or it can be hereditary. But there are risk factors you can change. “We definitely want to recommend that patients not use tobacco or alcohol,” Soldani said. Obesity is also a common risk factor. Regarding gallstones, Soldani said, “There are some patients who unfortunately are just going to be more prone. For example, if you have diabetes or a risk of high cholesterol, both conditions may increase your gallstone risk. Estrogen from pregnancy, hormone replacement therapy or birth control can also be a risk factor for stones.

Seeking treatment

Talk to your primary care provider right away about symptoms of abdominal pain. If you’re unable to keep liquids or solids down for an extended period or you experience a fever that doesn’t resolve, head to the emergency room, Soldani said. You may need to be treated for dehydration. Treatments for pancreatitis may involve medications, medical treatment primarily for symptom management, or even surgery. Each patient’s situation will be different and depend on a variety of factors. “At Vanderbilt, we really offer an expert team through gastroenterology and surgery to help treat these patients because they can be very complex,” Soldani added.

Cancer patient seeking treatment with oncologist.

The experts at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center work to provide a precise diagnosis and effective treatment options for pancreatic cancer. The team  combines advanced research, technology and techniques with compassionate care to create a personalized treatment plan that is right for each patient.

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Kira Soldani, FNP-BC

Kira Soldani, MSN, RN, FNP-BC, is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner in the Division of Surgical Oncology specializing in gastrointestinal type malignancies and assists to manage Vanderbilts Pancreatic Cyst Clinic. She brings over 13 years of surgical experience with a particular interest in the pancreas and exocrine pancreatic insufficiency.