Pancreatitis and diabetes are serious conditions affecting the ability of the pancreas to secrete insulin that the body needs to live. 

However, sometimes these two conditions intersect, which can be a difficult and confusing diagnosis for patients to grapple with. 

This article will explain the connection between pancreatitis and diabetes and what you can do if you’ve recently been diagnosed with one or the other—or both. 

Image of person holding their hand over their pancreas

What is pancreatitis? 

Simply put, acute pancreatitis is a temporary inflammation of the pancreas when some of the enzymes in the pancreas try to digest the organ. 

It usually comes on suddenly but can be alleviated within a few days of treatment. 

Inflammation is a reaction of the immune system that may cause pain, swelling, and changes in how an organ like the pancreas works. 

When someone suffers from pancreatitis, they may need to be treated in the hospital. 

With treatment, which includes hydration and pain management, most people will recover from acute pancreatitis within a week with no long-term consequences. 

Chronic pancreatitis, however, is long-term inflammation of your pancreas. 

This condition develops more gradually but worsens over time. This can scar your pancreas tissue (fibrosis), which eventually stops the pancreas from making enzymes and hormones, including insulin. 

Between 25-80% of people with chronic pancreatitis develop what is known as Type 3c diabetes, where taking exogenous insulin injections or other diabetes medications becomes necessary.

What causes pancreatitis?

Acute pancreatitis is commonly caused by drinking too much alcohol or having gallstones. Gallstones account for half of all acute pancreatitis cases. 

Additional causes of acute pancreatitis include:

  • Cancer
  • Injuries from trauma or surgery 
  • Certain medications
  • High calcium levels in the blood
  • High triglyceride levels in the blood

Chronic pancreatitis is caused mostly by long-term alcohol abuse, which is responsible for seven out of every ten cases. This is because heavy drinking damages the pancreas over time. 

Less common causes of chronic pancreatitis include:

  • Smoking
  • Autoimmune issues
  • Damage from repeated bouts of acute pancreatitis
  • High calcium and/or triglyceride levels in the blood 
  • An inherited genetic mutation that disrupts the functions of the pancreas
  • In as many as three out of every ten cases, the cause cannot be identified and is labeled as “idiopathic” chronic pancreatitis, where the condition spontaneously occurs without a known cause 

What are the symptoms of pancreatitis? 

The symptoms of both acute and chronic pancreatitis include:

  • Pain in the upper belly
  • Pain in the upper belly region that radiates to the back
  • The belly is tender to the touch
  • Fever
  • Rapid pulse
  • Upset stomach 
  • Vomiting 

Symptoms of chronic pancreatitis also include:

  • Weight loss without intention
  • Pain in the belly that worsens after eating 
  • Oily, smelly stools 

What does pancreatitis have to do with diabetes?

While most people recover from acute pancreatitis with little or no long-term health consequences, people who develop chronic pancreatitis are at risk for developing what is known as Type 3c diabetes. 

If, over time, enough of the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas are damaged from recurring pancreatitis, the pancreas may cease to produce insulin altogether. 

This is a rare form of diabetes, constituting only between 1-9% of all cases of diabetes. People who develop type 3c diabetes are often misdiagnosed with type 2 diabetes.

Chronic pancreatitis is the most common cause of type 3c diabetes, making up over 79% of cases. 

How well someone’s pancreas will work when they have type 3c diabetes depends. Some people can manage their diabetes with oral medications, whereas others will require insulin injections. 

Usually, the damage done to the pancreas from chronic pancreatitis, and if severe enough, the resulting type 3c diabetes, is permanent. 

Does pancreatitis always cause diabetes?

No. Acute pancreatitis, especially, does not usually cause diabetes or create long-lasting health consequences. 

However, chronic pancreatitis and the resulting long-term inflammation and scarring of the pancreas tissues will cause type 3c diabetes in a large percentage of patients. 

This is why if you’re experiencing pain in your abdomen or suspect you’re experiencing acute pancreatitis, call your doctor or seek emergency medical attention right away. 

Treating pancreatitis within the first few days of the onset of symptoms will increase the chances of a full recovery. 

Does diabetes cause pancreatitis? 

Compared to people without diabetes, people with diabetes have a 1.74-fold increased risk of acute pancreatitis and a 1.4-fold increased risk of chronic pancreatitis. 

This is because people with diabetes are more likely to have gallstones, be obese, as well as have higher triglyceride levels than people without diabetes—three factors that increase your risk for pancreatitis. 

People with type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease, are at higher risk for autoimmune forms of pancreatitis.

Finally, diabetes medications may increase your risk of pancreatitis. 

These include glucagon-like peptide (GLP)-1 receptor agonist medications, like Januvia and Byetta, as well as hypertensive medications to treat high blood pressure (a common comorbidity in people who also have diabetes), like ACE inhibitors.

Talk with your doctor if you have diabetes and you’re concerned that you may be experiencing pancreatitis. 

Can pancreatitis ever go away?

Acute pancreatitis is an inflammatory condition that can go away with proper treatment, usually in a hospital setting. 

However, chronic pancreatitis cannot heal itself. 

With proper management, you can slow the rate of pancreatic decline, improve quality of life, and prevent further damage to the pancreas—before type 3c diabetes or other health complications develop. 

Can I live a normal life with pancreatitis and diabetes?

“Normal” is subjective. 

If you are diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis and type 3c diabetes, you will need to take steps to maintain your health, including the following:

  • Stopping cigarette smoking
  • Stopping or reducing alcohol consumption
  • Exercising regularly
  • Eating a healthy diet low in fat 
  • Maintaining tight blood sugar control 
  • Taking all of your medications as prescribed
  • Seeing your doctor regularly 

That being said, 80% of people will have a life expectancy of at least 10 years after their initial diagnosis. 

With close monitoring and careful planning, you can live a full life with chronic pancreatitis and type 3c diabetes. 

Talk to your doctor about your treatment options.