Acute Pancreatitis – Symptoms, Causes and Alcohol Binges

The festive season is often marked with excessive alcohol consumption and while this may be part of the revelry, it can also lead to conditions like acute pancreatitis. Most cases of acute pancreatitis leading to emergency room visits occur immediately after Christmas or New Year’s day. The pancreas is small gland situated in the abdomen and plays a role in digestion and regulating blood sugar levels. In acute pancreatitis, the pancreas is inflamed to the point that it causes symptoms that can range from mild discomfort to extreme pain.

Signs and Symptoms of Acute Pancreatitis

Acute pancreatitis starts suddenly and lasts for a few days. The main symptom of acute pancreatitis is severe abdominal pain. This can be so excruciating that a person cannot stand or walk and has to bend forward or curl up into the foetal position to help ease the pain slightly. Pain in acute pancreatitis most often occurs in the upper part of the abdomen and feels like a stabbing pain radiating to the back. It often gets worse after eating and there is tenderness when touching the abdomen. Nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite and an increased heart rate due to the pain may also be noted.

Causes of Acute Pancreatitis

The pancreas secretes digestive enzymes into the gut to assist with digestion. In acute pancreatitis, these enzymes may be activated within the pancreas, thereby causing ‘digestion’ of the pancreatic tissue and resulting in severe inflammation. Sometimes blockage of the pancreatic duct prevents the enzymes from leaving the gland and this also causes inflammation of the pancreas.

Most cases of acute pancreatitis are a result of excessive alcohol consumption or alcohol abuse. Being a ‘seasoned drinker’ does not exclude you from the possibility of developing acute pancreatitis and it is important to always practice moderation when consuming alcohol. Another common cause of acute pancreatitis is gallstones. These stones block the common duct between the pancreas and gallbladder, thereby leading to acute pancreatitis. Other causes may include certain drugs, smoking, infection of the pancreas, trauma to the abdomen, high blood cholesterol or calcium levels and pancreatic cancer.

Repeated bouts of acute pancreatitis will lead to chronic pancreatitis. This can result in impaired glucose tolerance or even diabetes.

Alcohol Binging

Alcohol consumption should always be moderate and it is often better to have two or three drinks in a day, rather than binging at the weekend. Drinking large amounts quickly and competing in drinking competitions are one of the most common causes of alcohol-related acute pancreatitis. The festive season often leads to excessive alcohol consumption and it is advisable to pace yourself, drink water between your alcoholic drinks and avoid large amounts of concentrated alcohol products.

Treatment of Acute Pancreatitis

Hospitalisation may be necessary and strict bed rest is always recommended. Your doctor may stop all food intake to prevent the pancreas from secreting digestive enzymes. An IV drip may be necessary to ensure proper food and nutrition intake but this is usually done in a hospital setting. Certain painkillers may be prescribed but your doctor will carefully consider your case before deciding on which drugs may be used. Pancreatitis can be life threatening but in most cases, the severity of the symptoms will prompt immediate medical attention. Mild cases of acute pancreatitis may not present with as severe abdominal pain and can be managed conservatively at home.