Healthgrades Editorial Staff

What is pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas. The pancreas is a gland located behind the stomach that plays a key part in the digestive process. The gland secretes digestive juices into the small intestine, and these juices break down food. The pancreas also releases insulin and glucagon, two hormones that help the body regulate glucose levels.

The pancreas can become inflamed if the digestive juices, called enzymes, attack the gland itself, causing damage to the tissues of the pancreas. Pancreatitis can be an acute or a chronic condition. Common causes of pancreatitis include gallstones that form in the nearby gallbladder and travel to the pancreas via the common bile duct; long-term, heavy alcohol use; and certain conditions such as cystic fibrosis.

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Acute pancreatitis is marked by the onset of severe pain in the upper abdomen that may spread to the back. With proper treatment, acute pancreatitis can be managed and resolved, although the condition and its complications may be life threatening in some cases. About 200,000 people in the United States are hospitalized each year due to acute pancreatitis(Source: NIDDK).

Chronic pancreatitis is a long-term condition that can result in permanent damage. In this condition the pancreas is slowly destroyed until it can no longer produce the important digestive enzymes. Treatment may include a prescription for synthetic pancreatic enzymes.

Acute pancreatitis may start as a minor pain in the abdomen spreading to the back. The pain may intensify and worsen. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for serious symptoms, such as a swollen and tender abdomen, fever, nausea, rapid pulse, and vomiting.

Seek prompt medical care if you are being treated for chronic pancreatitis, but you have mild symptoms that persist, recur, or cause you concern.