Nestled behind the stomach in the upper left abdomen is the pancreas, an organ essential for converting the food you eat into energy and managing your body’s use of sugar after digestion. Just like any organ, the pancreas can become susceptible to inflammation, which can cause dysfunction in the body and lead to a condition known as pancreatitis. When inflammation comes on suddenly and is short-term, pancreatitis is acute; however, sometimes it can last for months—years even—and when this happens you have what is considered chronic pancreatitis.
Because chronic pancreatitis can cause permanent damage when left untreated, it’s important to know the warning signs that your pancreas isn’t functioning as it should. Let’s explore this condition further and learn the ways in which you can keep your pancreas healthy.
Understanding Chronic Pancreatitis
Pancreatitis occurs when the pancreas becomes inflamed, and the digestive enzymes it produces start breaking down the pancreas itself. This condition can be painful and even interfere with digestion, preventing proper absorption of essential nutrients.
While some experience acute inflammation of the pancreas, meaning it is brought on suddenly and gets better once treated, usually with changes in diet and lifestyle choices, others may have inflammation that persists and worsens over time. This is considered chronic pancreatitis.
Compared to acute pancreatitis, pain from chronic pancreatitis can be difficult to treat as damage to the pancreas never stops. And although it can take several years, chronic pancreatitis will eventually do long-lasting damage to the pancreas as inflammation leaves scarring, bringing the production of digestive enzymes and hormones like insulin to a halt.
This makes early detection of pancreatitis imperative to the longevity of your health and overall well-being. So, what symptoms should you be watching for?
Signs of Chronic Pancreatitis To Watch For
1. Never-ending abdominal pain
Abdominal pain from chronic pancreatitis may vary in intensity, ranging from moderate to severe, and can even radiate to the back. And while pain may come and go, it never disappears completely. Additionally, some may have an abdomen that feels tender to touch with pain that is constant, while others may only experience pain after eating.
2. Issues with digestion
Problems with digestion are a tell tale sign that you have chronic pancreatitis. Because the pancreas has become severely damaged due to constant inflammation, the body cannot make digestive enzymes and hormones, resulting in digestive issues and even malnutrition. It can even cause diabetes and issues with controlling blood sugar. Other symptoms to watch for include:
- Sudden weight loss
- Nausea and vomiting
3. Gallstone formation
If you have gallstones, pancreatitis may be the reason why.
Formed from bile stored in the gallbladder, gallstones are stone-like material (similar to kidney stones) that have hardened due to excess cholesterol and bile salts in the gallbladder. These stones can slip out of the gallbladder, blocking the bile duct and stopping pancreatic enzymes from traveling to the small intestine and forcing them back into the pancreas. This traps the enzymes inside the pancreas, causing irritation of the pancreas and the inflammation that is associated with pancreatitis.
How To Keep Your Pancreas Healthy
While pancreatitis is a leading cause of gastrointestinal-related hospitalizations in the United States, and is on the rise worldwide, you certainly don’t have to become a statistic. There are ways to avoid long-term dysfunction of the pancreas and combat your symptoms of chronic pancreatitis, and it all starts with your daily habits. These include:
- Avoid alcohol—Chronic consumption of alcohol is the second most common cause of pancreatitis, accounting for as much as 40 to 70 percent of all cases, according to StatPearls. By drinking less, or abstaining from alcohol altogether, you can protect your pancreas from the toxic effects of alcohol and reduce your risk of chronic pancreatitis. Additionally, you should be focused on keeping yourself hydrated.
- Stop smoking—Those who smoke cigarettes are more likely to develop chronic pancreatitis, suggesting that quitting may be a useful strategy to managing and preventing worsening pain.
- Eat a heart-healthy diet—Because gallstones are the leading cause of pancreatitis, following a diet centered around heart-healthy foods like fatty fish, avocados, and eggs will go a long way in preventing the formation of these stones and in turn reduce the likelihood of chronic pancreatitis.
Although the above methods are tried and true, it’s easier said than done to implement these changes into your daily life. But know that if you’re dealing with chronic pancreatitis, you don’t have to go through the pain alone. Not only can you connect with others who share the same condition as you in the Pain Resource Community, but several mental health resources are also available to kickstart your journey towards health.
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