Can Pancreatitis Cause Shoulder Pain?

Posted By Author on April 6, 2021

You’ve heard it said that knowledge is power – and when it comes to your health, it’s best to heed these wise words. To help you learn more about can pancreatitis cause shoulder pain and its symptoms, the team at Charleston GI is here to provide some helpful information.

man having shoulder pain with acute pancreatitis

What is Acute Pancreatitis?

Acute pancreatitis is the inflammation of your pancreas, an organ that helps to digest food.

Can Pancreatitis Cause My Shoulder Pain?

Yes. Despite its location behind the stomach and near the small intestine, your pancreas can cause pain in other parts of the body when it becomes inflamed. In fact, those suffering from acute pancreatitis may experience sudden pain in their upper abdomen that often radiates to the back – commonly the left shoulder blade. Pain may increase after eating or drinking, especially fatty foods.

Common Symptoms of Pancreatitis

In addition to abdominal and shoulder pain, other symptoms of pancreatitis include:

  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Jaundice
  • Diarrhea or oily stools
  • Bloating
  • High blood sugar
  • Weight loss

Keep in mind that some patients stop experiencing pain because their pancreas has stopped producing digestive enzymes. This does not mean that you should ignore prior symptoms and skip a visit to your doctor.

When To See a Doctor to Diagnose for Pancreatitis?

Continued episodes may indicate chronic pancreatitis. When left untreated, both acute and chronic pancreatitis can lead to serious complications, such as:

  • Pseudocysts (sacs of fluid in the pancreas) can cause infection or internal bleeding
  • Increased risk of diabetes or kidney failure
  • Malnutrition

Pancreatitis can also be an early sign of pancreatic cancer.  Discussing treatment with your doctor right away is crucial to decrease your risk of future complications.

Pancreatitis Diagnosis Offered At Charleston GI

After a physical exam and deep dive into your medical history, your Charleston GI doctor will likely conduct blood and urine tests to check if you have atypical or high levels of calcium, glucose, sodium, potassium, magnesium, and bicarbonate in your blood.

Our team may also request the following diagnostic tests:

  • X-rays
  • Ultrasounds
  • CT scans
  • And more

If you are diagnosed with pancreatitis, the experienced team of gastroenterologists at Charleston GI can help you identify potential risk factors and implement lifestyle changes. For instance, because heavy alcohol consumption is the most common cause of pancreatitis, avoiding drinking is an important lifestyle change.

After treatment, you may also be advised to:

  • Eat a low-fat diet.
  • Limit caffeine.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Stick to small, frequent meals.
  • Take prescribed pancreatic enzymes at every meal.

Speak with a Gastroenterologist at Charleston GI!

If you are experiencing symptoms of pancreatitis or other digestive pains like lactose intolerance, acid reflux, or inflamed bowels, talk to our experienced team of Gastroenterologists at Charleston GI! Our board-certified gastroenterologists have gained a reputation for earning highly satisfied reviews. Come receive quality stomach and digestive relief today, we welcome your visit!

Schedule an appointment at Charleston GI today!

More Helpful Gastrointestinal Blogs



Does pancreatitis affect bowel movements?

Yes, a lack of digestive acid can impact the GI system, making it difficult to break down fats and certain proteins. This often causes stool to be more smelly or greasy than usual.

Does pancreatitis cause gas?

Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI), the result of multiple bouts of acute or chronic pancreatitis, can cause gas and bloating. Other symptoms include chronic diarrhea, unintentional weight loss, and malnutrition.

Is coffee bad for pancreatitis?

Because coffee can cause dehydration, it is often considered a “no-no” for pancreatitis patients. However, research has shown that it may actually help prevent pancreatitis in some cases, earning coffee a spot on some gastroenterologists’ “recommended” lists.

Can you drink any alcohol with pancreatitis?

If you have chronic pancreatitis, our Charleston GI doctors recommend not drinking alcohol. Keep in mind that this also includes any “alcohol-free” beverages, since many still contain up to 0.5% alcohol by volume. Alcohol, even a very small amount, can worsen pancreatitis and lead to further damage.

Do all heavy drinkers get pancreatitis?

Approximately 45% of chronic pancreatitis-related fatalities are linked to alcohol abuse. But only 10% of those who abuse alcohol develop inflammation of the pancreas. The reason behind this remains unknown, but researchers suspect that certain people are simply more susceptible than others.

Can I eat scrambled eggs with pancreatitis?

Since egg yolks are high in fat, they are harder for those with pancreatitis to digest. Instead, choose egg whites that are naturally lower in fat, but still offer great protein.  

On which side of the pancreas do women feel pain?

Both men and women typically experience pancreatitis pain in the upper left side or middle of the abdomen. Pain may worsen within minutes of eating or drinking, and more commonly when consuming high-fat foods. Pain may become constant and more severe, sometimes persisting for several days.

Your pancreas lies along the first segment of your small intestine, called the duodenum. The right side of your body contains the head of your pancreas, while the tail of your pancreas can be found on the left side.

Where is the pain of pancreatitis felt?

Pancreatitis pain is typically felt in the upper left side of the abdomen, just below the ribs. It can also be felt in the middle of the abdomen. You may experience pain that does the following:

  • Radiates to your back or below the left shoulder blade
  • Worsens after eating, especially fatty foods
  • Becomes more severe when lying flat on the back
  • Gets more severe and constant with time

What causes pancreatitis?

When functioning properly, the pancreas secretes enzymes that are activated when they reach the stomach. When the enzymes get activated in the pancreas instead, painful inflammation results, causing a condition called acute pancreatitis. If these enzymes continue to get activated, scarring of the pancreas may occur over time. This results in chronic pancreatitis, a condition that causes frequent abdominal pain. Eventually, the scar tissue causes the pancreas to lose function and impedes digestion.

Pancreatitis may be caused by the following:

  • Abdominal surgery
  • Alcoholism
  • Gallstones
  • Hypertriglyceridemia (high triglyceride levels in the blood)
  • Infection
  • Trauma to the abdomen
  • Obesity
  • Some medications
  • Hyperparathyroidism (an overactive parathyroid gland)
  • Cancer of the pancreas
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) (a surgical procedure used to treat gallstones)

In some cases, the cause of pancreatitis is unknown.

Certain risk factors may increase your risk of pancreatitis, like these:

  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Family history of pancreatitis
  • Obesity

How is pancreatitis treated?

Acute pancreatitis or an acute attack of chronic pancreatitis is treated in the hospital in the following ways:

  • Fasting: Your gastroenterologist may ask you to avoid eating anything for a few days to allow your pancreas to recover. Later, liquids and bland food will be reintroduced.
  • Intravenous (IV) fluids: These fluids help keep you hydrated and ensure proper nutrition.
  • Painkillers: Strong medications may be prescribed to manage abdominal pain.

After your condition has stabilized, your GI doctor may recommend surgery, depending on the cause of your pancreatitis. These surgeries may help alleviate pain and prevent further damage:

  • Surgery to remove obstructions in the bile duct (such as a calculus or stone)
  • Cholecystectomy (surgery to remove the gallbladder)
  • Surgery to remove the damaged tissue from the pancreas
  • Surgery to block the nerves that cause pain 

Other treatments include the following:

  • Lifestyle modification (change in diet, quitting drinking, etc.)
  • Pancreatic enzyme supplements

When does pancreatitis become fatal?

If it becomes very severe, complications of acute pancreatitis can be deadly. In a small percentage of patients, severe acute pancreatitis causes a systemic reaction that leads to shock and multiple organ failure. This can be fatal if not treated immediately.

Can the pancreas heal itself?

Chronic pancreatitis destroys pancreas function, and therefore, requires medical treatment. While this condition cannot heal itself, proper medical management can slow down its progression. In addition to improving a patient’s overall quality of life, treatment also helps prevent further issues.

Can pancreatitis be cured?

While there is no known cure for chronic pancreatitis, pain and symptoms may be managed – or in some cases, prevented. Since chronic pancreatitis is most often caused by drinking, abstinence from alcohol is often a good place to start in finding relief.

Can you live without pancreas?

It is possible to live a healthy life without a pancreas, but it requires ongoing medical care. Pancreas removal causes diabetes because it alters the body’s ability to digest food – which then requires lifelong diabetes treatment. This includes eating a low-sugar, low-carbohydrate diabetes diet and getting regular insulin injections. In some cases, injections are replaced by an insulin pump. Patients may need to take digestive enzymes with each meal to ensure proper nutrient absorption.

Your Charleston GI doctor may recommend eating several smaller meals throughout the day to avoid blood sugar spikes. Avoiding drugs and alcohol can also help maintain long-term health.

What are the first signs of a bad pancreas?

Initial symptoms may include the following:

  • Severe belly pain spreads to the back or chest (and may feel worse after eating)
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Fever
  • Swelling and feeling sore/tender in the upper belly
  • Fluid buildup in the belly
  • Lowered blood pressure

What is a pancreas transplant for?

A pancreas transplant replaces a person’s pancreas that can no longer produce insulin with a healthy one from a donor who has died. The first pancreas transplant was performed in 1966. However, it was not until the 1990s that this kind of transplant became a common practice among GI doctors.

In type 1 diabetics, the pancreas is unable to produce insulin. A transplant allows people with type 1 diabetes to maintain their blood sugar levels without receiving extra insulin or intensive monitoring.

There are three types of pancreas transplants: 

  • Pancreas transplant alone: This is performed on type 1 diabetics with no kidney problems.
  • Simultaneous kidney and pancreas transplant: This is performed on patients with type 1 diabetes as well as end-stage renal disease.
  • Pancreas after kidney transplant: This is when a kidney transplant is performed first, from a living donor. The pancreas transplant from a deceased donor occurs later when an organ becomes available.

Who needs a pancreas transplant?

A pancreas transplant is an option for people with type 1 diabetes who cannot control their condition with insulin or oral diabetic medicine. The surgery is only appropriate for people with type 1 diabetes. 

People with type 1 diabetes who might benefit from a pancreas transplant include those who: 

  • Regularly pass out
  • Require routine visits to the emergency room due to blood sugar levels
  • Have uncontrolled average blood sugar levels
  • Need a caregiver to be present in case of emergencies, despite recommended medical therapies

What can be mistaken for pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer can be difficult to diagnose, with symptoms that are often vague – and mistaken for other more common conditions.

Studies have found that pancreatic cancer is sometimes misdiagnosed as conditions including:

  • Gallbladder disease (any condition affecting your gallbladder) 
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (heartburn and reflux) 
  • Peptic ulcer (sore spot in the stomach, esophagus, or small intestine) 
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)  
  • Muscular pain  
  • Diverticulitis (inflammation or infection in the intestines)  

Misdiagnosis of pancreatic cancer can increase the time between initially visiting the doctor and getting the correct diagnosis. Patients who are misdiagnosed also have, on average, more visits to their physician and more diagnostic tests. Keep in mind that the later the diagnosis, the higher the risk.

To help your Charleston GI doctor correctly diagnose your condition as quickly as possible, record your symptoms carefully and share them with your gastroenterologist.