To understand pancreatic pain, you need to know where your pancreas is located. Pancreas is an elongated gland and it sits deep inside your belly. When measured from the surface of your body, your pancreas location is closer to your upper back than your front abdomen. Your pancreas can be divided into 4 different parts. The location of these parts of your pancreas can help you make sense of your pancreatic pain.
Head of pancreas location: Most of your pancreas is located to the left of your body. However, the head of your pancreas crosses the midline and is located slightly to the right. It wraps around the upper part of your small intestine.
Neck of pancreas location: The pancreatic neck is the somewhat constricted part of your pancreas. The pancreatic neck connects the pancreatic head on the right with the pancreatic body on the left of your midline. Your pancreas curves towards your left from here on.
Body of pancreas location: The pancreatic body connects the pancreatic neck to the pancreatic tail. It curves upwards and to the left. It looks somewhat triangular when viewed from below.
Tail of pancreas location: The tail of the pancreas is its thin tip. Tail of your pancreas is the leftmost part of your pancreas. It has a slight forward curve and it goes all the way left to touch your spleen.
Pancreas location and its relation to pancreatic pain
Pancreatic pain feels like it is coming from deep inside your abdomen because of the deep location of your pancreas. Pain is usually felt in the middle or left of your midline. It can also occur on your right but that is less common. You can see that pancreatic pain corresponds to your pancreas location. As you recall, most of your pancreas is in your midline and left, and that is where you feel the pain most of the times. A part of the pancreas crosses to your right and you can sometimes feel the pain in that location too. Because your pancreas is an elongated organ, pancreas pain can feel stretched out like a band. Your pain may radiate out in a band-like fashion and go all the way to your back.
Acute pancreatitis symptoms: what does pancreas pain feel like?
Acute pancreatitis is the inflammation of pancreas that happens quickly. Your pancreas has many important functions in your body. Producing digestive juice is only a part of your pancreas function. However, these digestive juices play an important role in the inflammation of pancreas. Symptoms of acute pancreatitis are caused by this inflammation. They also play the main role in causing many of the other acute pancreatitis symptoms listed below.
Let us look at the list first and I will explain how digestive juices and inflammation of pancreas leads to those pancreatitis symptoms.
- Abdominal pain (Pancreatic pain)
- Burning and swelling of abdomen
- Nausea and vomiting
- Weakness and lightheadedness
- Chest pain with inspiration
- Shortness of breath
Pancreatic juice contains enzymes designed to digest nutrients in your food. Pancreatic juice is very corrosive because it is designed to breakdown tough organic materials including protein and fat. It is so strong that it can digest your own organ tissues. It is not surprising because our organ tissues are mainly made up of protein and fat. The production and use of these enzymes is normally highly regulated. These enzymes only flow in special ducts and have no contact with your organ tissues. They are only released inside your intestines to act on your food and not on your internal organs.
When something disrupts the flow of that corrosive juice, it initiates a series of events leading to acute pancreatitis. As soon as the corrosive juice leaks out in the open, it starts to digest your own tissue. The protein and fat inside your abdominal organs get exposed to this corrosive pancreatic juice and they start to dissolve. You feel this burning pancreatic pain.
At first, your pancreatitis pain location may vary, but it is usually somewhere in the upper mid abdomen. As the corrosion progresses, your pancreatitis pain location starts to expand. You may feel a tight band like area of severe pain spreading from side to side in the your mid upper abdomen. This type of severe pancreatitis pain may radiate all the way to your back. The corrosion of your organ tissues caused by spilling of pancreatic juice causes wide spread inflammation. This inflammation causes fevers and chills throughout your body.
When this inflammation spreads to your stomach, you may have severe unrelenting nausea and vomiting that may last for hours.
You may have pain with inspiration as your diaphragm gets inflamed. When you have severe acute pancreatitis symptoms, your inflammation continues to spread outwards and may go all the way up to your lungs. Your pancreatitis pain location may expand to include your chest. When your lungs get inflamed, you start to have shortness of breath. Lung inflammation caused by severe acute pancreatitis may interfere with your breathing and your body may not get enough oxygen.
The widespread inflammation resulting from severe acute pancreatitis may push your body towards a state of shock. Increased flow of blood to your inflamed organs may result in reduction of blood flowing to the rest of your body. This may result in low blood pressure. You may feel weak and dizzy when your blood pressure starts to go down. When the symptoms of your acute pancreatitis get this severe, it becomes a life threatening condition. Treatment for pancreatitis requires close monitoring in ICU when symptoms are severe.
Acute pancreatitis diagnosis
Acute pancreatitis diagnosis is established by measuring the levels of pancreatic enzymes in your blood. In severe acute pancreatitis, the enzyme levels are significantly elevated. CT scan of the abdomen may show the inflammation surrounding your pancreas. CT is also helpful to look for possible complications.
Chronic pancreatitis symptoms
Chronic pancreatitis symptoms : Pancreatic pain in chronic pancreatitis comes and goes. It is a recurrent condition. Pancreatitis pain location in chronic pancreatitis is similar to the pancreatitis pain location in acute pancreatitis. However, chronic pancreatitis symptoms do not usually spread up to the chest.
Here is a list of common chronic pancreatitis symptoms
- Pancreatic pain (Abdominal pain) on and off for a long time
- Nausea and vomiting
- Weight loss
- Diarrhea on and off
- Loss of appetite
- Indigestion with undigested fat and other food particles in stool
Chronic pancreatitis symptoms are debilitating and hard to control. Pancreatitis pain relief is the main goal of treatment in patients with chronic pancreatitis symptoms.
What causes pancreatitis in most patients?
Here are the 2 important causes of pancreatitis:
Drinking too much alcohol is the most common cause of chronic pancreatitis. It is the second most common cause of acute pancreatitis. The only effective treatment of pancreatitis from alcohol use is cessation of drinking.
Gallstones is the number one cause of acute pancreatitis. If you want to learn more details about gallbladder symptoms, you can follow this link. Gallbladder symptoms may progress into acute gallstone pancreatitis when the gallstones move out of gallbladder and obstruct the flow of pancreatic juice. The common bile duct connects pancreatic duct with the duct coming out of the gallbladder. Treatment of gallstone pancreatitis requires cleaning of this duct to make sure pancreatic juice has a passage to flow freely.
What causes pancreatitis in other patients?
Here are some other causes of acute pancreatitis:
- Trauma to the abdomen
- Certain medications
- Certain surgical procedure
- Very high blood triglycerides (visit this link if you want to learn about triglycerides)
- Certain infections
- High blood calcium levels
- Certain immune diseases
- Certain tumors
Here are some other causes of chronic pancreatitis:
- Certain autoimmune diseases
- Certain toxins
- Certain genetic conditions such as cystic fibrosis
- Certain bodily stress
- Due to repeated episodes of acute pancreatitis