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Fire in the Belly

March 29, 1999|BARBARA J. CHUCK

Yeeowwwww. You've got a painful feeling in your upper abdomen that goes through to your back. You might also be nauseated and vomiting, have a fever and a rapid pulse. You may also have abdominal swelling and tenderness. And these symptoms came on suddenly. A possible diagnosis is acute pancreatitis, which means your pancreas has become irritated or inflamed.

Gallstones and alcohol abuse are the most common culprits behind this condition. Other causes include certain medications, trauma, infection and problems with the structure of the pancreas.

At what point should you call your doctor? The Johns Hopkins Family Health Book (HarperCollins, 1999) recommends that if you have severe abdominal pain for more than 20 minutes, call your doctor or get yourself to the emergency room.

If your doctor suspects gallstones, an ultrasound--which uses sound waves to create a picture of your pancreas and the area around it--may be done. Other tests might include a CAT scan (computed tomography), which can show inflammation of the pancreas. An ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography) examines the common bile duct for gallstones. Why? Because gallstones, which are hard stones, form in the gallbladder, which is near the pancreas. These organs share a passage into the small intestine, called the common bile duct. If gallstones block this duct, fluid can't leave the pancreas, resulting in that powerful pain, pancreatitis.

If you have acute pancreatitis, it may require a hospital stay of several days, during which you probably won't be able to eat or drink some of the time, allowing your pancreas to heal. Nutrition and fluids will be given intravenously and you will get medication to help ease pain.

Once you leave the hospital, your doctor probably will recommend that you:

* Eat a low-fat diet, which reduces stress on your pancreas so it can heal.

* Avoid alcohol, which irritates your pancreas.

* Use prescribed medications as directed. Of course, call your health-care provider if you have concerns that you might have acute pancreatitis.

Source: StayWell Co.

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Problems in the Pancreas

The pancreas and gallbladder share a passage into the small intestine called the common bile duct. Gallstones blocking this duct cause fluid to back up and result in a common form of pancreatitis.

Source: StayWell Co.

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