How to Lower Your Risk of Future Pancreatitis Attacks

Hint: smoking, drinking and diet play a role
Illustration of pancreas in the human body

Have you ever gotten severe, sharp stomach pain caused by your pancreatitis? Or has it felt more like a constant, dull discomfort? 

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Either way, you need to address it by working closely with your doctor and by making important lifestyle changes.

“Early and aggressive treatment of pancreatitis can improve outcomes, prompt an early recovery and limit complications,” says pancreatic specialist Prabhleen Chahal, MD.

What causes pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis occurs when the pancreas — the long organ that sits behind the stomach and next to the small intestine — gets inflamed. The pancreas aids in digestion and helps regulate your hormones for sugar and metabolism.

“Pancreatitis has two forms: acute and chronic,” says Dr. Chahal. “Problems start happening when the pancreas releases digestive enzymes too soon and they attack the pancreas itself instead of breaking down the food you eat.”

If you have an acute case, your symptoms may range from mildly uncomfortable to life-threatening. Mild attacks typically last a few days.

Moderate to severe attack of pancreatitis may cause:

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  • Multi-organ (kidney, lungs or heart) failure.
  • Bleeding/clot formation in blood vessels.
  • Destruction of pancreas (necrosis).
  • Infection.
  • Formation of inflammatory fluid collection (pseudocyst).
  • Malnutrition.
  • Sepsis.
  • Slowed down gastrointestinal system.

Chronic pancreatitis, however, is a result of progressive, long-lasting inflammation. It can develop after you have an acute attack and over time, symptoms may include:

  • Upper abdominal pain and bloating.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Malabsorptive diarrhea.
  • Weight loss (because your body isn’t absorbing nutrients properly).
  • Diabetes.
  • Deficiency of fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E and K.

How to stop future attacks

Stopping future pancreatitis attacks are possible. To start on a healthy journey, it’s important to make some behavioral and lifestyle changes.

“The disease of the pancreas has significant impact on your quality of life,” she says. “Successful management will involve multi-specialist care, including behavioral and lifestyle modification.”

If you keep having pancreatitis flare-ups, it can eventually lead to pancreatic scarring, so it’s crucial to make these needed changes. Do what you can to lower these risk factors:

  • Gallstones. If you are diagnosed with gallstones and have suffered an attack of pancreatitis, removing the gallbladder can help prevent future problems.
  • Heavy drinking. Excessive alcohol intake causes up to 70% of chronic pancreatitis cases, and nearly half of acute pancreatitis, so it makes sense to stop drinking alcohol.
  • Smoking. It can make your outcomes worse, make the disease (chronic pancreatitis) progress faster and increase your risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • Poor diet. Avoid high-fat foods, especially fried foods that can put a load on your digestive system. Instead, focus on eating a low-fat, high-protein diet that is rich in vitamins and nutrients. Patients with chronic pancreatitis often benefit from the institution of medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil in their diet. You may also consider taking artificial digestive enzymes, which help your body break down food and absorb nutrients and vitamins. Consult with your doctor about if artificial digestive enzymes would be a good idea to take.

Dealing with the pain

If your pancreatitis is causing you mild to moderate pain, over-the-counter pain medications like acetaminophen or ibuprofen taken over the short term may help.

“For pain that is constant and severe, consider a consultation with a pain management doctor who often prescribe medications called neuro pain modulators,” says Dr. Chahal. “A specialized procedure called celiac plexus block is also offered to patients for managing chronic pain related to chronic pancreatitis.”

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If you’ve had an acute attack, avoid it coming back by starting with medication and behavioral changes. In some cases, further endoscopic procedures like an endoscopic ultrasound (ERCP) or surgery is necessary.

If you have stones in your pancreas, your doctor may use shock waves to break up the stones that are creating blockages. 

“This may help with the pain and recurrent pancreas flare-ups,” she says. “Surgeons can remove diseased or inflamed areas of the pancreas or the entire pancreas, if necessary.

Ultimately, managing the condition often requires both medical, endoscopic, surgical and personal changes.

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