What is Pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis comes in many forms and affects everyone differently, but it has two main classifications, Acute and Chronic. I'll detail in the next section the difference between the two and further on how to deal with each effectively.
Differences between Acute and Chronic:
Acute is much more volatile, but is finite. It ends. There's nothing "small" or "insignificant" about Acute Pancreatitis and it can kill you if you don't seek treatment. Its symptoms are like influenza, except add in an enormous amount of pain in your upper left abdomen and inability to move. With treatment, which varies from patient to patient, as it may be caused by gallstones or abuse of alcohol, the Pancreatic attack will recede, and all will be as it was before.
But Chronic Pancreatitis is what happens when your Pancreas has stopped functioning normally, has stopped sending out the proper enzymes for fat digestion to the liver, and becomes inflamed on a daily basis causing pain in the upper left abdomen, right below the ribcage. This pain can last for hours, or sometimes all day, every day, and has to be managed with pain medication most often.
How does one get diagnosed with either?
By going to a Gastrointestinal Specialist. These specialized doctors and their staff can order procedures to be done such as CT-scans, EGDs, and Colonoscopies to determine whereabouts in the GI tract the issue lies. I would highly recommend scheduling an appointment with one of these doctors over visiting the ER. Many ER doctors are ill-equipped to deal with such delicate procedures, or diagnosing the conditions in the first place. You might be doing more harm than good by visiting the ER in this case. But if you suspect it's Acute Pancreatitis, that may be your only option. Sometimes you just aren't able to wait that extra day until the appointment with the GI doctor, and definitely seek help if that's the case.
But anyway, they'll scope through your mouth and down your stomach, and/or scope anally and go up that way. Other methods are ultrasound, where they can take a pretty little picture of the pancreas and see if it's exploding or not. CT-scan is similar but less precise. There are numerous ways to diagnose Pancreatitis, but the least effective i would say, are the blood tests. Amylase/lipase test is useful for Acute Pancreatitis, but not really for CP. There's a thousand other liver/pancreas tests they can run, but they aren't really definitive. They just add more data to the subjective experiential analysis of the patient. They add background to the "my tummy hurts". And can help to point toward other diseases if CP isn't the actual diagnosis.
There's even a stool tests they run, called the fecal fat tests, to see if your body is digesting fats or just passing it all right through which is a common symptom of CP. So, don't leave it to your best judgment when being diagnoses, leave it to the GI doctor's best judgment.
If you go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, what then?
Then you'll be living in a land of pain and heartache for the rest of your days. Your pancreas will continue to be inflamed and your body will be in perpetual pain, especially after eating. You'll probably have a good 4-8 hours of energy a day if you're lucky, and the rest is spent in bed trying to cope with the pain. Sound fun? Don't let it ruin your life. Chronic Pancreatitis is manageable. All it takes is some pancreatic enzyme supplements, some pain management, and some diet restrictions. I'll go into detail about that later.
Medicines and Diet, in tandem.
There are numerous medicines that help the Pancreas in its everyday functions by assisting in the fat digestion process. It's essential that you help your pancreas in any way that you can. I could go into the myriad of medicines that help the pancreas, but when it comes to Chronic Pancreatitis, there are brand of drugs that are essential to someone with this debilitating condition. They are called analgesics. Pain-meds.
Some of these pain medications include: Tylenol, Advil, Ibuprofen, Tramadol, Vicodin, Percocet, Oxymophone, Morphine, etc.
For most CP sufferers, a mixture of Tylenol or Ibuprofen and Tramadol can help manage the pain. For others, they need the stronger opiates such as Vicodin and beyond. But pain management will lead to a more productive life for someone with this disease that has no cure. Your pancreas may be failing you, but you mustn't fail yourself. Get the help you need, even if it means being on pain medication for the rest of your life.
Since the pancreas likes to explode after high-fat content meals, it's best to avoid such things. There are such things as good fats and bad fats, and I don't just mean monounsaturated verses saturated. I mean, some fats are easier to digest than others. Nuts are a prime example of easy to digest fats, whereas a giant cheeseburger....not so much. Pizza. Same thing. Peanut butter has a sizable portion of fat, but can be easier on the pancreas, in moderation.
Going to a trained Nutritionist is helpful. He/she can help you find a diet that works for your pancreas and works for your lifestyle. We all crave cheeseburgers and pizza, but for the sake of our bodies, we must not indulge or suffer the consequences.
What's the endgame?
How long can someone with this condition expect to live as compared to someone without? It's hard to say. Chronic Pancreatitis has the distinct possibility and tendency to turn into Pancreatic Cancer....which is obvious not a positive thing, but that doesn't have to happen. That's usually what happens when someone who has been diagnosed with CP ignores diet restrictions and doesn't take any sort of medication and continues whatever harmful lifestyle they were leading that led them to have the condition in the first place.
Now, someone like me, who merely inherited it from my father and grandmother, shouldn't be limited in lifespan. And if I am, it's because I choose not to take care of my pancreas. I'm at a disadvantage, and at a predisposition for diabetes (which can and does limit one's lifespan), but proper nutrition, and proper enzyme management and regular blood tests are essential to living a successful life with this Chronic condition.
Conclusion and Notes
If you or someone you know is suffering from this illness, please, urge them to take care of themselves. There's a fine line that exists between disaster and success. If you can help that person achieve success with their illness, then by all means, do your best. But, ultimately, it is up to the person with the illness to seek help, and continue treatment. Their quality of life depends upon it.
I hope some of this has been interesting and useful to you, and I pray for those of you out there with this debilitating condition. I pray that you will seek help, and manage it properly. You can do this!
Eddie on January 12, 2015:
Hey, sublte must be your middle name. Great post!