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Prevention, Early Detection, and Treatment

Pancreatitis demands prompt medical attention. During an acute attack, there is the potential for the pancreas to be destroyed within a matter of hours and complications can be life-threatening.

Acute Pancreatitis
It usually is not possible to prevent most single incident acute pancreatitis attacks or to detect them early. Recurrent acute pancreatitis may be caused by a combination of genetic risk and modifying factors, such as alcoholism. Attacks associated with alcoholism, typically involving several years of moderate to heavy alcohol consumption, are usually precipitated by an episode of binge drinking. There may or may not have been earlier warning pains that could have been addressed by seeking medical attention. In the case of gallstones or other causes of acute pancreatitis, there usually is no warning before the attack.

Treatment usually consists of pain control and fasting to "rest" the pancreas for several days to a few weeks until symptoms subside. People are hospitalized during this time period, and all fluids and nutrition are given intravenously (IV). Complications such as infections are monitored and treated. If the acute pancreatitis is due to gallstones, surgery may be necessary, including removal of the gallbladder.

Chronic Pancreatitis
Chronic pancreatitis is treated by trying to prevent future attacks, minimizing pancreatic damage, and by addressing damage already done. Abstention from alcohol is critical in helping to prevent additional attacks. A low-fat diet may be prescribed to reduce the burden on the pancreas and pancreatic enzymes may be given to alleviate insufficiencies and malabsorption. The affected person also may need to supplement their diet with fat-soluble vitamins and calcium. Glucose (blood sugar) is often monitored, and insulin injections may be given if the person has become diabetic. Oral diabetic medications do not usually work in these cases.

Pain control is an important part of treatment as there may be ongoing moderate to severe pain. Those affected may be given narcotics and antidepressants. As time progresses and pancreas function diminishes due to destruction of pancreatic tissues, the pain level may drop.

Surgery may be necessary in some cases to remove all or part of the pancreas and/or to remove or bypass obstructions. It should be noted that the pancreas is very difficult to operate upon. Read more about pancreatic surgery at the American Cancer Society website.

Those with chronic pancreatitis are at a higher risk for developing pancreatic cancer. As a health practitioner monitors someone with chronic pancreatitis, he or she also will be watching for cancer.

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