- What is pancreatitis?
- What causes pancreatitis?
- What to expect when recovering from pancreatitis
- How long does pancreatitis take to heal?
- Can pancreatitis fix itself?
- How do you feel after pancreatitis?
- Tips to speed up recovery from pancreatitis
- What are the risks and long-term effects of pancreatitis?
- How do you know if pancreatitis is gone?
- Is pancreatitis likely to come back?
Across all ages, around 33 people out of 100,000 will be diagnosed with pancreatitis worldwide.
The incidence is highest in older people, with around 81 cases per 100,000 in those aged 75 and older worldwide.
Pancreatitis isn’t a highly common condition, but it is a painful one.
If you’ve had pancreatitis, you might wonder how long it will take to heal and when you’ll feel better.
This article will cover what pancreatitis is, its symptoms and causes, and offer insight into the recovery process and what to expect after your diagnosis and while you heal.
What is pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis occurs when your pancreas becomes inflamed (conditions ending in -itis mean inflammation), resulting in severe pain.
The pancreas is an organ tucked behind your stomach. The pancreas’ head (top) is in the top left area of your abdomen (stomach area).
Your pancreas is an important organ with several functions. One of the most vital functions of the pancreas is to produce insulin, a hormone that helps lower blood glucose levels. It also makes glucagon, a hormone that helps raise blood sugar levels.
The other primary function of your pancreas is to make digestive “juices” containing enzymes that help break down food during digestion.
Your pancreas produces lipase (breaks down lipids [fats]), amylase (breaks down carbohydrates), and proteases (breaks down protein).
Some symptoms of pancreatitis are:
- Upper abdominal pain
- Abdominal pain that radiates to your back
- Tenderness when touching your abdomen
- Rapid pulse
Chronic (persistent) pancreatitis signs and symptoms include:
- Upper abdominal pain
- Abdominal pain that feels worse after eating
- Losing weight without trying
- Oily, smelly stools (steatorrhea) due to a lack of pancreatic enzymes that help break down fats
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What causes pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis occurs when your pancreas becomes irritated and inflamed. Pancreatitis is either acute (short-term) or chronic, which means it reoccurs over a long period.
The most common causes of pancreatitis are:
- Alcohol abuse: alcoholism is the most common cause of chronic pancreatitis, causing 40-70% of cases. Alcoholism with chronic pancreatitis also increases the risk of pancreatic cancer, which is often fatal.
- Gallstones: gallstones are hardened masses of digestive juices that form in your gallbladder. Gallstone pancreatitis occurs when gallstones block the pancreatic duct (the area where digestive juices are released into the small intestine). When the pancreatic duct is blocked, digestive enzymes back up into the pancreas and cause severe pain and damage.
Other potential causes of pancreatitis are:
- Injury or surgery to your abdomen
- Very high levels of fat particles (triglycerides) in your blood
- Very high levels of calcium in the blood
- Taking certain medicines such as estrogens, steroids, and thiazide diuretics
- Infections such as mumps, hepatitis A or B, or salmonella
- Cystic fibrosis
- Pancreatic tumor
- Genetic defects
- Congenital abnormalities of the pancreas
- Trauma to the pancreas
- Cigarette smoking
Some cases of pancreatitis may seem to come out of the blue. Otherwise, the most common risk factors for developing pancreatitis are:
- Excessive alcohol use
- Cigarette smoking
- Having gallstones (cholelithiasis)
- Being diabetic
- Having a family history of pancreatitis.
What to expect when recovering from pancreatitis
If you receive a mild acute pancreatitis diagnosis, you can expect to recover within 1-2 weeks. If you had a severe case of pancreatitis and were hospitalized, you can expect to leave the hospital after around 5-10 days, but it might take weeks to months to feel 100% recovered.
You can expect to feel lingering pain in your stomach while recovering from pancreatitis. You might also feel weak and tired as you completely heal from pancreatitis.
If your healthcare provider prescribes pain medications, you should take them as prescribed. Otherwise, you can generally take over-the-counter pain medications as needed.
You may also need to take other medications if they were prescribed, such as antibiotics if an infection is suspected.
Expect to alter your diet significantly in the days and weeks following your pancreatitis diagnosis.
You’ll need to eat a bland, low-fat diet to allow your pancreas time to heal from the pancreatitis. You should also focus on having small mini meals and snacks and avoid having large meals until you’ve recovered.
With new cases of pancreatitis, you may need to follow a clear liquid diet for a few days to allow your pancreas time to rest (your pancreas is stimulated to release digestive enzymes in response to meals, especially high-fat meals).
You might feel tired and weak, especially if you were hospitalized for your pancreatitis. Allow yourself plenty of time to get extra rest during your pancreatitis recovery. You may need to take some time off work to allow you to get adequate rest.
How long does pancreatitis take to heal?
Pancreatitis can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to months to heal. The time it takes to heal depends on factors like how severe your pancreatitis case was, the cause of your pancreatitis, and what things you do to promote your recovery.
The more you adhere to your healthcare provider’s instructions, the better your chance of a smooth recovery.
If you go back to regular eating habits or start drinking alcohol too soon, you may prolong your healing time.
Can pancreatitis fix itself?
Pancreatitis often fixes itself (especially in mild cases), but it can take weeks to feel better. If you have fluid collection around your pancreas, you’ll need medical care to drain the fluid with a drainage tube.
If your pancreatitis was more severe, you might require a hospital stay to receive care, including IV fluids, medications, and possibly surgery.
How do you feel after pancreatitis?
It’s normal to feel tired after pancreatitis and experience dull, lingering pain in your stomach. The pain from pancreatitis should improve over time – if it worsens or isn’t getting better, you should seek medical attention.
You might also experience stomach changes like diarrhea as your body goes back to producing enough digestive enzymes again.
You might notice early satiety (fullness) if you weren’t eating much during your pancreatitis attack.
Early satiety tends to get better as your appetite improves and you slowly return to eating more normal amounts of food.
Tips to speed up recovery from pancreatitis
Eat a low-fat diet
High-fat foods stimulate your pancreas to create lipase to digest the fats. A high-fat diet can worsen both acute pancreatitis and chronic pancreatitis symptoms. This may prolong your recovery and how long it will take you to heal from pancreatitis.
Avoid eating high-fat foods like high-fat meat, full-fat dairy, fried food, and greasy foods like pizza.
Instead, focus on getting plenty of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, lean protein, and low-fat or nonfat dairy or dairy alternatives.
Stick to a clear liquid diet if your symptoms are severe
If you’re suffering from severe pancreatitis pain, a clear liquid diet is advised until your symptoms improve.
Juice, jello, broth, and popsicles are all part of a clear liquid diet and can help give your pancreas a break while it heals.
Boost your antioxidant intake
Some small studies suggest that people with chronic pancreatitis have lower levels of antioxidants in their system, like vitamins A, C, and E.
Antioxidant-rich foods like berries, citrus fruits, and nuts might help reduce inflammation and help you recover from pancreatitis sooner.
Be sure to start with small portions of nuts since they are high in fat, albeit healthy fat.
Take digestive enzymes
Taking digestive enzymes might alleviate some of the digestive discomforts from pancreatitis and promote healthy digestion as your pancreas regains its ability to produce and secrete digestive enzymes.
Digestive enzymes are available to buy over the counter. Choose a digestive enzyme blend containing amylase, protease, and lipase to cover all of the macronutrients and promote healthy digestion.
Try to allow yourself as much time to rest as you need in the initial week or two after your pancreatitis diagnosis. The more severe your case is, the longer you’ll need to recover.
If you had surgery for your pancreatitis, you’d likely need to take at least a month off of work.
Focus on hydration
Fluid needs are increased with pancreatitis, especially in the early stages. Drinking plenty of fluids (water is preferred) may help shorten your recovery time.
Be sure to avoid caffeinated beverages, which can be slightly dehydrating.
As you recover from pancreatitis, you should avoid alcohol completely. Drinking alcohol can re-irritate your pancreas and prolong your recovery, possibly even causing a relapse of your pancreatitis.
Some healthcare providers suggest avoiding alcohol for at least six months after a bout of pancreatitis, even if it wasn’t necessarily caused by alcohol.
What are the risks and long-term effects of pancreatitis?
Long-term, pancreatitis might increase your risk of diabetes if the cells that produce insulin are damaged.
Your risk of pancreatic cancer might also be greater if you experience chronic pancreatitis since chronic inflammation can trigger abnormal cell growth (cancer).
Some of the potential risks and complications of pancreatitis can include:
Acute pancreatitis may cause kidney failure in some cases. One study cited the prevalence of kidney failure from pancreatitis at around 15%.
Acute pancreatitis can cause chemical changes in your body that affect your lung function and cause the oxygen level in your blood to fall to low levels.
Acute pancreatitis can make your pancreas more vulnerable to bacteria. Pancreatic infections are serious and require treatment, such as antibiotics or even surgery to remove the infected tissue.
Acute pancreatitis can cause fluid and debris to collect in cyst-like pockets in your pancreas. If a large pseudocyst ruptures, it can cause complications such as internal bleeding and infection.
Both acute and chronic pancreatitis can cause your pancreas to produce fewer enzymes needed to break down nutrients in the food you eat, which can lead to malnutrition since your body isn’t absorbing these beneficial nutrients. Malnutrition can lead to unintentional weight loss and weakness.
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How do you know if pancreatitis is gone?
You’ll likely know your pancreatitis is gone once your symptoms have resolved and you can tolerate the diet and activity level you were accustomed to before your pancreatitis diagnosis.
Your healthcare provider might suggest running certain tests to assess if your pancreatitis is resolved.
Some of the diagnostic tests used to diagnose pancreatitis include:
- Stomach x-ray
- ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography) – a tube is put down your esophagus to your stomach; dye is placed in your pancreatic ducts, which allows it to be seen via x-ray
- CT scan (more detailed than x-rays)
- MRCP (magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography) – looking at your pancreas with an MRI and injecting dye to view your pancreas, gallbladder, and their ducts
- Lab tests, including measuring the levels of amylase and lipase in your blood
Is pancreatitis likely to come back?
According to a study, approximately 25%-31% of patients with acute pancreatitis had had at least two cases of pancreatitis, while some had more recurring cases.
If known causes like drinking alcohol trigger your pancreatitis and you continue to consume alcohol, then you’re more likely to have recurring pancreatitis.
If you have recurring pancreatitis, you’ll likely be diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis, which is when damage to the pancreas can occur.
Chronic pancreatitis increases your risk of diabetes and pancreatic cancer, and you might end up needing surgery to remove damaged parts of your pancreas.
Pancreatitis occurs when your pancreas becomes inflamed and painful. The most common causes of pancreatitis include alcohol abuse and gallstones.
It can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to several months to completely recover from pancreatitis.
Recovery time is highly dependent on the severity of the pancreatitis case, as well as whether or not it’s acute pancreatitis or chronic (long-lasting).
To aid in your recovery from pancreatitis, you’ll need to follow a low-fat diet, sometimes focusing on only clear liquids for the first several days.
In addition to adjusting your diet, aim to stay hydrated, avoid alcohol, and get plenty of rest to help promote full recovery from pancreatitis.