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Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas. This happens when there is congestion in the flow of digestive enzymes and these enzymes start attacking the pancreas itself. Hence, the person affected may feel discomfort in the abdominal region.
Prolonged pancreatitis can reduce the functionality of the pancreas, leading to a decline in its ability to produce normal quantities of digestive enzymes and hormones. This affects the performance of the pancreas, causing malabsorption of nutrients and often resulting in diseases such as diabetes.
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), around 275,000 American adults are admitted to the hospital for acute pancreatitis every year. (1)
What Is the Pancreas?
The pancreas is a flat gland deep-seated in the abdomen. It is a vital organ associated with the production of various enzymes and hormones responsible for the smooth functioning of the digestive system.
The digestive enzymes are released into the duodenum, where they target the proteins and fats for absorption. Specialized cells in the pancreas secrete mutually antagonistic hormones, namely, insulin and glucagon, into the bloodstream to regulate blood sugar levels.
Insulin absorbs excess glucose from the bloodstream when blood sugar levels are high, whereas glucagon releases the stored glucose into the bloodstream as per the body’s requirements.
Pancreatitis: Types, Causes, and Symptoms
Pancreatitis can present itself in acute and chronic forms.
Acute pancreatitis is a condition wherein the inflammation lasts for a short period (most cases of acute pancreatitis improve within a week and patients can go home after 5–10 days of hospitalization), whereas chronic pancreatitis is characterized by longer durations lasting over years of inflammation and associated effects.
1. Acute pancreatitis
Acute pancreatitis is a sudden inflammation of the pancreas, with associated discomfort that ranges from mild pain to moderate. Through proper treatment, most patients can recover completely, but in severe cases, acute pancreatitis can result in infection, bleeding into the gland, cyst formation, and severe tissue damage.
The severe form of pancreatitis is associated with damage to other vital organs including the lungs, kidneys, and heart.
Causes of acute pancreatitis
- Gallstones: The most common cause of acute pancreatitis, gallstones can obstruct the path of the digestive enzymes and hormones, and this obstruction can lead to an inflammation of the pancreas.
- Excessive fats called triglycerides in your blood: Elevated levels of triglycerides can cause free radical-induced damage to the pancreatic cells.
- Alcohol abuse: Excessive alcohol intake is a potential threat to the pancreas.
- Autoimmune pancreatitis: It is a rare type of pancreatitis caused by the body’s immune system attacking the pancreas.
- Injury: An injury to the pancreas in the event of a direct abdominal or motor vehicle injury can cause inflammation in the pancreas.
- Cystic fibrosis: Cystic fibrosis is a chronic genetic disease that is characterized by abnormally thick and sticky production of mucus that constricts the passageways of the lungs and digestive systems.
- Certain medications containing estrogen, corticosteroids, and certain antibiotics play an essential role in triggering pancreatitis, either as a direct toxic effect or as a side effect.
- Viral reinfections of mumps in adulthood is a rare and probable cause of pancreatitis.
Symptoms of acute pancreatitis
2. Chronic pancreatitis
Chronic pancreatitis is manifested by recurring events of pancreatic inflammation accompanied by mild to moderate or severe pain in the abdominal region.
Chronic pancreatitis impairs the digestive system of the individual, affecting the absorption of nutrients in the small intestine. Despite a wholesome diet, individuals suffering from chronic pancreatitis frequently lose weight, owing to the inability of the digestive system to absorb nutrients.
Recurrent acute pancreatitis can progress to chronic forms. Chronic pancreatitis can lead to scarring and can render the pancreas dysfunctional for a lifetime.
Causes of chronic pancreatitis
- Alcohol consumption is a potential risk factor in approximately 70 percent of the cases. (2)
- Hypertriglyceridemia: Elevated levels of triglycerides.
- A narrow pancreatic duct; a blockage of the pancreatic duct by gallstones or pancreatic stones, hindering the passage of digestive enzymes or hormones.
- Cystic fibrosis, characterized by abnormally thick and sticky production of mucus, interfering with the smooth passage of fluids in the lungs and digestive system.
- Hereditary: Familial pancreatitis that runs in the family.
- Hypercalcemia can engender an injury to the pancreas via accumulation of secretory proteins.
- Pancreatitis can be identified with several autoimmune diseases, namely, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, primary biliary cirrhosis, Sjogren’s syndrome, retroperitoneal fibrosis, sarcoidosis, and sclerosing cholangitis.
- Recurrent episodes of acute pancreatitis can acquire a chronic form.
Symptoms of chronic pancreatitis
- Recurrent or even constant abdominal pain, which may be severe
- Steady unintentional weight loss caused by the poor absorption of nutrients required by the body
- Fatty, foul-smelling stools (steatorrhea)
- Diabetes, as a consequence of the loss of the functionality of the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas
Treatment for Pancreatitis
Your doctor may suggest a visit to the gastroenterologist or surgeon for the following procedures and measures, depending on the type of pancreatitis that you have:
- To heal your pancreas, you may be hospitalized and restricted to intravenous nutritional support.
- Surgery is warranted if the underlying cause of pancreatitis is gallstones or some other obstruction of the bile or pancreatic ducts.
- Medication and antibiotics are administered orally or intravenously.
- The diet is low in fat and high in fluids with frequent meals in small portions.
- If the doctor suspects that the condition is stemming from a particular medication, the said medication is likely to be discontinued or swapped with a safer alternative.
- Alternative therapies such as yoga, exercise, meditation, and acupuncture have been suggested to ease the pain.
A combination of blood tests and imaging studies will be prescribed. Physical examination and medical history will be required to evaluate the possible causes.
The diagnostic criteria for pancreatitis are as follows:
- The patient presents with severe epigastric pain or pain in the left upper quadrant which worsens after eating or drinking particularly fatty foods.
- Lipase or amylase levels three times higher than the normal value is a definitive diagnostic for pancreatitis.
- A value greater than 4 for lipase to amylase ratio strongly suggests an alcoholic cause of pancreatitis.
Besides blood tests, healthcare professionals may choose one or more of the following imaging tests for diagnosis:
- Abdominal ultrasound
- Endoscopic ultrasound
- Computerized tomography (CT) scan
- Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), using an endoscope to help get an X-ray of the bile and pancreatic ducts
- Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP)
- Pancreatic function test, a test that is performed at some centers in the United States. In this test, the response of hormone secretin (secreted by the small intestine) is measured against your pancreas.
Blood tests of an individual suffering from pancreatitis must show high levels of:
- Digestive enzymes (amylase and lipase) almost thrice the normal amount
- High levels of blood sugar
- High levels of lipids (fats) blood
Home Remedies to Relieve Pancreatic Pain
Here are some effective ways to relieve pancreatitis pain.
1. Apply a hot compress
It is even helpful in alleviating inflammation.
How to use:
- Prepare a hot water bottle or warm up a heating pad on a low setting. Wrap it in a small towel and place it on the painful area for 5 to 10 minutes. Repeat as needed.
- Enjoying a warm bath or shower for 15 to 20 minutes twice a day also helps relieve stomach pain.
Caution: Care should be taken while using a hot water compress to reduce the risk of burns.
2. Drink apple cider vinegar
Apple cider vinegar is rich in anti-inflammatory properties. It helps reduce the abdominal pain related to pancreatitis. Its natural acid content helps in reducing the thickness of the bile, thus preventing the formation of stones in the gall bladder (one of the critical causes of acute pancreatitis).
Additionally, it helps to maintain an ideal body weight and abdominal fat content, which can aid in pancreatitis treatment. (5)
How to consume:
- Mix 1 tablespoon of raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar in 1 cup of warm water.
- Stir in 1 teaspoon each of lemon juice and honey.
- Drink this solution two times a day.
3. Take omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) that are essential to the human body but cannot be synthesized. These are involved in various metabolic pathways of the human body. Omega-3 fatty acids possess anti-inflammatory properties and help in reducing the inflammation and pain due to pancreatitis.
A study reports that by increasing the tissue content of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, there can be a reduction of systemic inflammation in acute pancreatitis and of tissue fibrosis in chronic pancreatitis. (6)
According to a 2015 meta-analysis published in Nutrients, omega-3 fatty acid supplementation was found to reduce the risk of mortality and infectious complications and decrease the span of hospital stays of patients with pancreatitis. (7)
To include omega-3 fatty acids in your diet, consume soybean, flaxseed, walnut, canola, spinach, shrimp, clams, and fatty fishes such as salmon, trout, and tuna. You can also consider taking a supplement on consultation with a doctor.
4. Enjoy ginger tea/ale
Ginger helps reduce inflammation in the pancreas and soothe the pain owing to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
A 2013 study published in the Journal of Preventive Medicine highlighted the antioxidative and anti-inflammatory effects of ginger. (8)
Aggravated cases of pancreatitis have been identified with pancreatic cancer. A study published in Gastroenterology Research and Practice (2015) established that ginger and its constituents are effective against pancreatic cancer. (9)
How to consume:
- Sip on warm ginger tea to reduce pain. To make ginger tea, peel and slice a ½ inch-long piece of ginger root. Put the slices in 1 cup of hot water. Cover it and let it steep for 10 minutes. Strain, add honey if you want, and drink it while it is still warm. You can also chew the ginger slices.
- You can also drink ginger ale to get relief from pain.
5. Try acupuncture therapy
Acupuncture is a safe and effective way of relieving discomfort and pain. Used for thousands of years for a wide array of physical and mental ailments, acupuncture can be used to alleviate the pain related to pancreatitis.
Acupuncture is a type of procedure that involves stimulation of the anatomic points on the body by a variety of techniques. Thin, solid, metallic needles are penetrated into the skin and are manipulated by the hands or by electrical stimulation.
A 2017 study published in Pancreas studied the analgesic effect of acupuncture in pancreatic pain. Because the outcome lasted only for a short duration, further studies are required to validate the impact of acupuncture on visceral pain. (10)
Another study conducted in 2018 and published in Trials demonstrated the efficacy of electroacupuncture for pain relief in patients with acute pancreatitis. (11)
Consultation with a doctor is must before undergoing acupuncture therapy.
6. Consume turmeric
Turmeric possesses properties that help fight many cancers, including pancreatic cancer. The anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric can be attributed to its bioactive ingredient, curcumin.
A 2011 study published in the Indian Journal of Medical Research suggested that curcumin could attenuate pancreas tissue and other organ injuries by inhibiting the release of an inflammatory marker. (12)
Another study published in Pain Medicine (2016) reports that curcuminoid supplements may be a safe and effective strategy to mitigate the severity of pain associated with this condition. However, further rigorously conducted studies are warranted to define the long-term efficacy and safety of these supplements. (13)
How to consume:
- Boil 1 teaspoon of turmeric powder in 1 glass of milk or 2 glasses of water. Drink this twice daily.
- You can also take 400 to 600 milligrams of curcumin supplement up to three times a day or with each meal. Always consult your doctor before taking any supplement.
Note: Avoid high doses of turmeric in pregnancy as it may put the pregnancy at risk. Use turmeric with caution if you are diabetic or suffering from gallstones, bleeding disorders, etc.
7. Include blueberries in your diet
The anti-inflammatory properties of blueberries make them a good remedy for pancreatitis pain. It even reduces vascular damage to the pancreas caused by diabetes.
Blueberries are rich in antioxidants, which protect the pancreas from oxidative stress as a result of free-radical damage. These berries can also reduce your risk of developing severe conditions such as pancreatic cancer.
According to the American Institute of Cancer Research, blueberries have a large number of phytochemicals, particularly anthocyanins, which help in inhibiting tumor growth and may decrease inflammation. (14)
Include at least 1 cup of fresh blueberries in your daily diet to keep your pancreas healthy.
8. Take reishi mushrooms
Reishi mushrooms contain powerful anti-inflammatory compounds that can reduce inflammation in and around the pancreas. This, in turn, reduces the risk of developing pancreatitis. They are also rich in phytochemicals that prevent free-radical damage to the body, thus reducing the risk of several cancers, including pancreatic cancer.
A 2014 study published in Mediators of Inflammation found mushrooms to be a potential source of anti-inflammatory compounds for medical applications. (15)
Another 2016 study done on mice shows the potential usage of this mushroom as a possible therapy for chronic pancreatitis. However, more work is needed to be done on human subjects. (16)
When taken for health reasons, consume this mushroom in dried or extract form. It is readily available on the market in liquid, capsule, or powdered form. Take 150 milligrams to 300 milligrams of reishi mushrooms twice a day to help relieve inflammation, in the process boosting your immune system.
Where Is the Pain of Pancreatitis Felt?
Both acute and chronic pancreatitis is characterized by pain in the upper abdominal area, usually under the ribs. Middle-left upper abdominal pain is a common symptom irrespective of the diagnosed form of pancreatitis. The duration of the pain ranges from a few minutes to several hours at a stretch.
- Mild pain at first that worsens after eating or drinking.
- Pain that may aggravate while lying down on the back and may reduce while leaning forward in a seated posture
- Constant and severe pain that lasts for several days
- Pain that radiates toward the back region
- Sometimes, pain that encompasses the upper body and back in a band-like pattern
The intensity of pain is associated with the cause of pancreatitis. A sudden stabbing pain that radiates to the back is a symptom of gallstone-induced pancreatitis, whereas slight localized pain is indicative of alcohol-induced pancreatitis.
Diet Considerations for Patients With Pancreatitis
The treatment for pancreatitis may involve fasting for a while, to give rest to your pancreas. During this time, intravenous nutritional support is provided. Once the inflammation is contained, a diet low in fat and plenty of fluids is prescribed to speed up recovery.
Moreover, alcohol use is restricted if not avoided altogether to keep pancreatitis from worsening or recurring.
To prevent pancreatitis, bring about different changes in your lifestyle to metamorphose into a healthier individual, such as:
- Limit your alcohol consumption to a minimal. Avoid smoking. Consult a doctor if you suffer from an addiction.
- Choose a diet plan that is high in fruits, vegetables, and proteins and limits carbs and fats.
- Keep yourself hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids throughout the day.
- Instead of drinking coffee, go for decaffeinated green tea, which is extremely good for your health.
- Include foods rich in antioxidants to fight free radical damage.
- Try meditation as it aids in easing pain from chronic illnesses.
- Mental and emotional stress factors dramatically affect pain and inflammation in the body. Hence, try to reduce stress as much as possible.
- Drink aloe vera juice daily, as it hosts a sufficient quantity of anti-inflammatory compounds, which can help reduce inflammation of the pancreas. (17)
- Papaya juice is another nutrient-rich formula often used to treat pancreatitis. (18)
Complications With Pancreatitis
Several complications may develop if a case of pancreatitis is not treated in a timely or proper fashion.
- Pseudocysts are sacs formed as a result of collected fluids and debris, which when ruptured can result in internal bleeding in the organ and subsequent infection.
- Respiratory distress occurs, affecting the functioning of the lungs.
- Diabetes is a severe complication that may arise due to diminished levels of insulin as a result of the pancreatic inflammation.
- Untreated chronic pancreatitis can result in pancreatic cancer.
- Poor absorption of nutrients can lead to unintentional weight loss or malnourishment of the diseased individual.
- Because pancreatitis is associated with diarrhea, vomiting, and even internal bleeding, a prolonged episode can trigger hypovolemic shock, which is a potentially fatal situation that occurs due to a loss of more than 20 percent of the body’s blood or fluid supply.
- Damage to other vital organs including the kidneys, lungs, and heart may occur.
When to See a Doctor
Pancreatitis is characterized by an inflamed pancreas, with symptoms including abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, breathing difficulties, and digestive distress. These symptoms are not peculiar to pancreatitis and can often be confused for some other ailment.
In order to get a proper diagnosis, it is recommended to get your symptoms evaluated properly by a medical professional. This is particularly important because undermining your condition and not tending to it promptly can give rise to a number of far more serious and life-threatening complications.
Pancreatitis requires immediate medical attention. Treatment usually demands intravenous (IV) fluids, antibiotics, and pain medication. However, you can try the above listed natural remedies, along with your medical treatment, to ease the pain and discomfort associated with the disease.