Experiencing severe abdominal pain after an alcohol binge? Could be pancreatitis
Most pancreatitis cases could be attributed to lifestyle factors.
Peter (32), who has a weakness for whisky, rather overdid it at a friend's birthday party. The next morning, his friends found him curled up like a ball with acute stomach pain. He had to be hospitalised.
In another incident, 27-year-old Swati was enjoying the sunshine with friends at a Goa beach when she fell sick. After rushing her to the hospital, the doctor said it was because of the beer and wine she had through the previous night.
These two stories have a thread in common. Both Peter and Swati developed pancreatitis, a disease caused by consuming excessive alcohol that can turn a beautiful day into a life-altering nightmare.
According to Dr Kumar Parth, consultant surgical gastroenterologist at Sagar Hospital, “pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas. Pancreatitis can occur as acute pancreatitis (it appears suddenly and lasts for days) or as chronic pancreatitis (that develops over many years).”
“However, the acute form occurs suddenly and may be a severe life-threatening illness with many complications. Usually, the patient recovers completely. If the injury to the pancreas continues, such as when a patient continues drinking alcohol, a chronic form of the disease may develop, bringing severe pain and reduced functioning of the pancreas that affects digestion,” said Dr Ravi Gaur, COO of Onquest Laboratories, New Delhi.
Watch out for these
The signs and symptoms of pancreatitis can vary from person to person.
Acute pancreatitis generally presents as severe upper abdominal pain radiating to the back, most of the time associated with nausea or vomiting. Common signs of chronic pancreatitis include severe upper abdominal pain that can travel along the back and is more intense following a meal, said Parth.
Dr Vibhu Mittal, senior gastroenterologist, department of gastroenterology at Max Hospital, Ghaziabad, said: “The major functions of the pancreas are to secrete hormones (insulin and glucagon) into the blood stream to convert food into energy. And the second function is to aid digestion by secreting powerful digestive enzymes into the small intestine. But when these digestive enzymes are activated prior to the release time, they start attacking and damaging the pancreas causing this condition.”
The usual symptoms include extreme pain in the upper abdomen with abdominal distension and vomiting. Pain may radiate to the back. In severe cases, there can be internal bleeding, tissue damage and formation of cysts that can affect other vital organs like the kidneys, lungs and heart. Such prolonged tissue damage can also cause insulin-glucagon imbalance leading to diabetes. This may be a rapidly worsening disease leading to involvement of other organs within a matter of days, Mittal explained.
There is an around 10% risk of death associated with this disease, which may go up to 30-70% depending on the severity, he added.
Likely causes and risk factors
Gaur cites gallbladder stone, alcoholism, certain medications and metabolic derangements such as high triglyceride levels and high calcium levels in the body as common causes of pancreatitis. “Sometimes, a cause for pancreatitis is never found,” he said.
However, Mittal said most pancreatitis cases could be attributed to lifestyle factors. After gallbladder stones, bingeing on alcohol, especially among the young, is one of the prime reasons. Prolonged alcohol abuse is a major reason that damages the pancreas gradually and may not symptomise for years, but causes sudden and irreversible damage. Even though 10-20% of the cases are hereditary and sporadic, more than 70% of those are treatable in early stages with timely intervention. Family history of cystic fibrosis and high cholesterol levels are added risk factors.
Eating wrong a culprit
“Poor eating habits and bingeing on alcohol and smoking are the major reasons for a rise in the number of cases of pancreatitis among young professionals,” Mittal said. Untimely food consumption, snacking and munching, along with sedentary lifestyle leads to development of LDL (low-density lipoprotein) in the body, that gradually leads to pancreatic damage when added with alcoholism. Pancreatitis is also associated with high intake of oily or high-fat diet, Gaur added.
Treating the disease
Consult a specialist without delay if a sudden abdominal pain in the upper part of the stomach becomes persistent and recurrent.
If the condition is diagnosed during the early stages, the patient may be treated with IV fluids and pain-killer medications. If the condition worsens, the patient may need to be closely monitored to prevent the damage spreading to other parts of the body, Mittal said, and added that in extreme cases, where the pancreatic tissues completely die, the damaged part needs to be removed surgically to prevent an infection.
People with pancreatitis should adopt a diet that is high in lean protein and low in fat. Pancreatic enzyme supplements may be prescribed to facilitate the digestive process, Parth said.
Mittal said, “Preventing pancreatitis depends on your eating habits and alcohol consumption, which is the reason for over 60% of the cases. Patients need to immediately curb their alcohol intake and smoking and follow a low-fat diet as prescribed by the doctor. Making certain lifestyle changes not only prevents but also helps in reversing the condition, if diagnosed early.”
Parth advised: “Avoid alcohol, stop smoking and maintain a healthy weight as obesity can increase the risk of developing gallstones, which can lead to pancreatitis if the stones get trapped in the duct that allows digestive enzymes to exit the pancreas.”
Including fresh fruits and vegetables and food rich in antioxidants such as dark leafy vegetables, sweet potatoes, grapes and walnuts are beneficial.