Fans of comedian Kevin Barnett were shocked earlier this week when news broke that the 32-year-old died suddenly while on vacation in Mexico. Now, the results of his autopsy are in, and it appears the Rel co-creator died of “non traumatic hemorrhage, caused by pancreatitis,” the Forensic Medical Service of Tijuana said in a statement to E! News.
Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas, a large gland that sits behind your stomach.
Your pancreas has two main jobs: to make insulin, a hormone that regulates the amount of glucose in your blood, and to make digestive juices (enzymes) to help you digest food, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) says. Pancreatitis is a condition in which those enzymes damage the pancreas and cause inflammation.
Pancreatitis also comes in two forms. There's acute pancreatitis, which means it comes on suddenly and usually lasts for a short period of time. The other form is chronic pancreatitis, which means that it's ongoing. Both forms are serious and can lead to complications, the NIDDK says.
Most people with acute pancreatitis get better and it goes away after a few days with treatment, although it's possible to have a more severe form of acute pancreatitis, which can put a person in the hospital for a long period of time. In some cases, the complications of acute pancreatitis can be deadly, Amit Raina, M.D., pancreatic disease expert at Mercy Medical Center’s Institute for Digestive Health and Liver Disease, tells SELF.
In patients with chronic pancreatitis, the pancreas doesn’t heal or get better, the NIDDK says. Instead, it gets worse over time, which can cause lasting damage to your pancreas. Complications of chronic pancreatitis can also be fatal, Anton Bilchik, M.D., Ph.D., professor of surgery and chief of gastrointestinal research at John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells SELF. Those potential complications include a pseudocyst (fluid and debris that collects in pockets in your pancreas that can rupture and cause internal bleeding and infection), serious infection, kidney failure, breathing problems, diabetes, malnutrition, and pancreatic cancer, the Mayo Clinic says.
People with chronic pancreatitis have usually had several bouts of acute pancreatitis first.
Pancreatitis develops when the digestive enzymes in your pancreas become activated while they’re still in your pancreas, irritating the gland’s cells and causing inflammation, the Mayo Clinic says. But if you have several rounds of acute pancreatitis, your pancreas can become damaged, leading to chronic issues.
“The two most common causes [of pancreatitis] are related to alcohol and gallstones,” Dr. Bilchik says. A little background information: Your liver makes bile (which helps break down food), and the bile travels from your liver to your gallbladder, where it’s stored. Gallstones, which are hardened pieces of digestive fluid, can form in the gallbladder and possibly block the duct between the gallbladder and pancreas—leading to inflammation and pancreatitis.
Alcohol abuse, too, can cause “repetitive injury” to your pancreas, which can lead to chronic pancreatitis, Dr. Raina says. “Those injuries might be so subtle that you might have little ache or pain or nothing,” he says. “You can slowly destroy the gland and end up with chronic pancreatitis.” But it’s also possible to have acute pancreatitis from drinking a large amount of alcohol at once, Dr. Bilchik says.
Other conditions related to pancreatitis include stomach surgery, certain medications, smoking cigarettes, having cystic fibrosis, a family history of pancreatitis, infection, and pancreatic cancer, per the Mayo Clinic.
Symptoms of pancreatitis vary depending on the type you have.
If you have acute pancreatitis, you might experience upper abdominal pain, pain that radiates to your back and feels worse after you eat, a fever, rapid pulse, nausea, vomiting, and tenderness when you touch your abdomen, the Mayo Clinic says. With chronic pancreatitis, you might have unexplained weight loss, upper abdominal pain, and oily, smelly poop. Unfortunately, people with chronic pancreatitis usually experience pain daily, John Poneros, M.D., a gastroenterologist at the Columbia Pancreas Center affiliated with NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, tells SELF.
If your doctor suspects you have pancreatitis, they’ll usually have you run through a bunch of tests, including blood tests to look for elevated levels of pancreatic enzymes, stool tests, a CT scan or abdominal ultrasound to look for gallstones, an endoscopic ultrasound to look for inflammation and blockages, or an MRI to look for abnormalities in your gallbladder and pancreas, the Mayo Clinic explains.
Once you're diagnosed with pancreatitis, your doctor may have you fast for a few days to give your pancreas a chance to recover, medication to help with the severe pain that can come with pancreatitis, and IV fluids to help with dehydration, the Mayo Clinic says. Once it’s under control, you may need a procedure to open up your bile duct, surgery to remove your gallbladder (if gallstones have caused your pancreatitis), surgery on your pancreas to drain fluid or remove diseased tissue, and treatment for alcohol addiction, if that is at the root of your pancreatitis. People with chronic pancreatitis may also need to take pancreatic enzyme supplements with each meal to break down and process the nutrients in the foods you eat.
Overall, if you have an acute pancreatic attack, it’s crucial that you and your medical team work together to try to figure out what caused it so you can treat the underlying cause, Dr. Raina says.
If you are diagnosed with pancreatitis, don’t panic—it's usually treatable. "Most patients with one episode of acute pancreatitis will live a long, healthy life," Dr. Poneros says. "A patient with chronic pancreatitis can have complications, but with appropriate management and surveillance, they can do very well."