Sudden inflammation of the pancreas -- known as acute pancreatitis -- is one of the most common and painful conditions affecting the digestive system. If you are diagnosed with this potentially life-threatening illness, treatment usually involves a period of hospitalization. Initial priorities include treating the underlying cause of the inflammation, managing your pain, providing enough fluids, and managing your diet and nutrition. Depending on the severity of your condition, your initial diet might be limited to clear liquids or low-fat solid foods. In some cases, nutrition is provided through a feeding tube until your condition improves.
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Initial Diet Options
The nausea and vomiting common with acute pancreatitis may initially prevent you from eating or drinking. Guidelines published by the American College of Gastroenterology in September 2013 recommend that at least in mild cases of acute pancreatitis, eating and drinking can resume when your pain begins to resolve and you're able to keep food down. Your initial meal may be limited to clear liquids like ice pops, broth and clear juice. However, low-fat solids -- such as cooked cereal, a turkey sandwich and soft fruit -- may be offered as they provide more calories with no increase in pain. If you're unable to eat for several days, your doctor may begin tube feedings.
If you have severe pancreatitis and cannot eat, your doctor might start a temporary feeding tube that supplies liquid nutrition. The tube is inserted through your nose and extends into your stomach or small intestine. Your medical team can choose from a variety of liquid nutrition supplements. Although guidelines are not uniform on how promptly to start tube feedings with acute pancreatitis, a review article published in 2011 in "Gastroenterology Research and Practice" noted that starting tube feedings within 48 hours of hospital admission reduces the risk of infections and complications, and might shorten the length of hospital stay.
Long-Term Diet Changes
Your pancreas produces substances that help digest food and regulate blood sugar levels. Consequently, even after acute pancreatitis resolves, you might experience poor digestion or blood sugar abnormalities. A small study published in the November 2013 "World Journal of Gastroenterology" reported that 14 percent of people who recovered from acute pancreatitis produced fewer digestive enzymes, and 35 percent had elevations in blood sugar levels. It is unclear whether these abnormalities might eventually correct themselves as your pancreas heals. If you have poor digestion, a high-calorie, nutritious diet will be recommended. If you develop diabetes or prediabetes, you'll also need to incorporate blood sugar management strategies into your nutritional plan.
Inform your doctor of any signs of poor digestion -- such as unintended weight loss or oily and foul-smelling stools. Also report any signs of diabetes, such as extreme thirst, frequent urination or unintended weight loss. A March 2009 study published in "BioMed Central Gastroenterology" reported that nearly 17 percent of people with a history of acute pancreatitis suffered another episode within a year. Therefore, alert your doctor if you have signs of pancreatitis, including severe upper abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting. Because excessive alcohol consumption is a common cause of pancreatitis, discuss alcohol safety with your doctor.