Upper Left Abdominal Pain: Is it Pancreatitis?

The organs located in your upper left section include the stomach, the pancreas, the left lobe of liver, the spleen, the left kidney, the adrenal gland, the splenic flexure of the colon, and parts of the transverse and descending col.

The pancreas is an organ located behind the stomach and near the small intestine.

In most cases, upper left abdominal pain is caused by a problem with the pancreas.

The role of the pancreas is to produce and distribute insulin, digestive enzymes, and many other necessary hormones.

Acute pancreatitis, one of the most common causes of left abdominal pain is an inflammation of the pancreas [1]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4682595/.

It occurs suddenly, and pain often radiates to the back.

If you ignore the problem, it can lead to chronic pancreatitis.

Causes of pancreatitis

As mentioned before, the pancreas is an organ located in the upper left abdomen.

It is positioned just behind the stomach, and its role is to produce enzymes and insulin.

The enzymes are only active only after reaching the small intestine.

If they become active in the pancreas, they can digest the tissue of the pancreas and cause swelling, bleeding, and damage to the organ [2]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23839162.

When this happens, the problem is called acute pancreatitis.

The condition affects men more often than women [3]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11713955.

Enzymes are not the only cause of acute pancreatitis.

Certain diseases, habits, and surgeries can cause acute pancreatitis and upper left abdominal pain.

Here are some common causes and conditions:

  • For 70% of the acute pancreatitis cases in the US, alcohol use is the main cause. Consuming between 5 and 8 drinks per day for a long period of several years will cause serious damage to the pancreas
  • Gallstones are also a common cause, as they block the opening that drains bile and enzymes when they travel out of the gallbladder [4]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4538890/. Accumulation of bile and enzymes into the pancreas will cause swelling of the organ
  • Genetics play a role in some case, and in other cases, the cause is not known [5]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4231507/
  • Damage to the ducts or pancreas during surgery is another common cause
  • High blood levels of triglycerides, can cause damage to the pancreas and cause pain and swelling
  • Injury to the pancreas caused by an incident or trauma
  • Autoimmune problems, when the immune system attacks the body
  • Other causes including cystic fibrosis, Reye syndrome, infections of the pancreas, use of corticosteroids, use of estrogens, overactive parathyroid gland, and procedures like ERCP and ultrasound-guided biopsy

Are you at risk for acute pancreatitis?

As you can see, there are a lot of conditions that occur randomly and can affect people of all ages and races.

However, there are also certain risk groups that have a higher risk of developing acute pancreatitis and experiencing upper left abdominal pain

  • Drinking too much alcohol puts you at risk
  • Men are more prone to acute pancreatitis than women [6]https://www.sharecare.com/health/pancreatitis/pancreatitis-affect-men-differently
  • Smoking tobacco increase your chances of acute pancreatitis
  • Family history of cancer or inflammation puts you at risk as well

Symptoms of acute pancreatitis

As mentioned before, one of the main symptoms of pancreatitis is upper left abdominal pain.

The pain can also be felt in the middle of the abdomen.

The pain will get worse after eating or drinking, especially if foods are high in fat.

The pain can also become constant and severe and last for several days.

If you are lying flat on your back, the pain will also get worse.

In some cases, pain radiates from the upper left abdomen to the back and below the left shoulder blade.

Other symptoms of acute pancreatitis include:

  • Fever, nausea, and vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Bloating and fullness
  • Indigestion
  • Mild yellowing of the skin
  • Swollen abdomen
  • Clay-colored stool

If the symptoms are accompanied by abdominal pain, consult your physician and seek medical care.

Treatment for acute pancreatitis

Treatment for the condition often requires hospitalization, but also include pain medicines, fluids given through a vein, and following a special diet.

In some cases, doctors may insert a tube through the nose or mouth to remove the contents of the stomach if you are vomiting and have severe pain that does not improve.

The tube can stay inside for 1 or 2 days, or up to 2 weeks.

Complications

If not treated, acute pancreatitis can continue to chronic pancreatitis.

It can also cause complications like pseudocysts in the pancreas [7]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK6978/.

These fluid-filled sacks can often cause infections and internal bleeding and disrupt the balance of your body’s chemistry.

In some cases of acute pancreatitis, the risk of developing kidney disease and issues and diabetes is also possible.

This leads to dialysis. In some cases, acute pancreatitis is also the first sign of pancreatic cancer.

Quick and effective treatment of pancreatitis will reduce the risk of complications.

Therefore, consult with your physician as soon as possible to avoid them.

Dietary guidelines

As we mentioned previously, diet is the key to treating acute pancreatitis [8]https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT00580749.

Nutrition is vitally important for treating any condition, but even more for patients with pancreatitis.

The primary goal of nutrition and dietary guidelines are:

  • To prevent malnutrition and nutritional deficiencies
  • Prevent and manage diabetes, kidney problems, or any other condition associated with pancreatitis
  • Avoid causing an acute episode of pancreatitis by trigger foods
  • Maintain normal blood sugar levels

To achieve these guidelines, patients have to stick to high protein, nutrient dense foods and include lots of fruits and vegetables in their diet.

Abstinence from alcohol and fried foods is a must.

It is also important to note that every patient is a different story.

Nutritional guidelines and dietary modifications are made on an individual basis, because each patient is unique and requires an individualized plan.

That being said, there are some general rules of thumb you should consider:

  • Follow a low-fat diet
  • Do not eat fried, stir-fried, or sautéed foods
  • Use cooking techniques as baking, grilling, roasting, and steaming to prepare your food
  • Load up on fruits and vegetables
  • Stick to low-fat protein sources
  • Avoid drinking alcohol
  • Make your meals smaller, and consume several smaller meals, not three large ones

Foods to avoid

  • Processed meat
  • Whole eggs
  • Organ meat
  • Fried foods
  • Fatty cuts of red meat
  • Poultry skin
  • Butter
  • Whole milk
  • Margarine
  • Sour cream
  • Refried beans
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Peanut butter
  • Muffins
  • Cookies
  • Cakes, pies, and pastries
  • Potato or corn chips
  • Salad dressings
  • Lard
  • Cooking oils
  • Mayonnaise

Foods to eat

  • Egg whites
  • Skinless poultry
  • Lean cuts of meat
  • Almond milk
  • Tuna canned in water, not in oil
  • Low-fat dairy products
  • Rice milk
  • Lentils
  • Beans
  • Soy and soy products
  • Whole grain products
  • Whole grain cereals
  • Rice
  • Tortillas
  • Fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables
  • Sorbet
  • Coffee
  • Honey
  • Gelatin
  • Fruit and vegetable juices
  • Clear vegetable soups
  • Tea
  • Water
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