Overview of Lupus and Pancreatitis

The location of the pancreas.

Lupus is often called a disease of symptoms since signs of the condition often appear through several related conditions. With lupus, the body makes antibodies to itself, which can then attack a variety of organ systems resulting in a variety of symptoms. Lupus often affects major systems and organs in the body, including the pancreas. When your pancreas becomes inflamed, it is called pancreatitis.

What Is Pancreatitis?

Located behind the stomach in the upper abdomen, the pancreas produces enzymes and hormones that aid in digestion and help regulate blood sugar levels. In some cases, pancreatitis can be a life-threatening illness.

There are two main forms of pancreatitis: acute and chronic. Acute pancreatitis occurs suddenly, lasts for a short period of time, and often resolves on its own. Chronic pancreatitis does not resolve on its own and can cause permanent damage or destroy your pancreas if left untreated. Either form can cause serious complications including:

  • Bleeding, tissue damage, and infection
  • Development of pseudocysts, accumulations of fluid and tissue debris
  • Introduction of enzymes and toxins into the bloodstream, which could damage the heart, lungs, kidneys, or other organs

Signs and symptoms of pancreatitis in people with lupus are similar to those in people without lupus, but treating the illness can be quite different.

Diagnosing Lupus-Related Pancreatitis

In some cases, pancreatitis is the first symptom of lupus, and most people with lupus-associated pancreatitis have other symptoms and signs of active lupus. Pancreatitis is most commonly caused by gallstones and chronic, excessive alcohol use.

Pancreatitis related to lupus is uncommon, but because of the possible severe and life-threatening complications associated with it, your doctor will investigate the possibility, should you report abdominal pain. Other symptoms associated with acute pancreatitis include constant or sudden pain, pain after eating, a swollen and tender abdomen, nausea, vomiting, fever, a rapid pulse, dehydration, fat in your bowel movements, and low blood pressure. 

If you exhibit any of these symptoms, your healthcare professional will likely conduct a medical history and physical exam. They may also order a blood test which can determine whether there is an increase in the digestive enzymes amylase and lipase, indicating a diagnosis of pancreatitis. Your physician may also order an abdominal ultrasound and a CT (computerized axial tomography) scan.

Treating Pancreatitis

If you have lupus and pancreatitis, you will receive similar treatment as compared to those people with pancreatitis not associated with lupus. Treatment may include intravenous hydration, resting the pancreas by limiting food and alcohol, and antibiotics. If you have lupus you may also be treated with corticosteroids with or without cytotoxic agents, including azathioprine, cyclophosphamide, and mycophenolate mofetil. During your recovery, your doctor may recommend you switch to a low-fat diet while your pancreas heals.

If you have lupus and you are concerned you may have pancreatitis, speak to your doctor. Diagnosing and treating pancreatitis early will have the best outcome for you and your care.

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Article Sources
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  • Involvement of the Pancreas in Lupus. Lupus Foundation of America. January 2005.
  • Pancreatitis: JAMA Patient Fact Sheet. Journal of the American Medical Association. June 2004
  • Pancreatitis. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. February 2004.