Pancreatitis: What is the life-threatening condition Travis Barker has?

Pancreatitis, targeting the vital organ known as the pancreas, can be sudden or ongoing and can be caused by a number of different factors.

 Travis Barker and Kourtney Kardashian arrive at the In America: An Anthology of Fashion themed Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, New York, US, May 2, 2022. (photo credit: Andrew Kelly/Reuters)
Travis Barker and Kourtney Kardashian arrive at the In America: An Anthology of Fashion themed Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, New York, US, May 2, 2022.
(photo credit: Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

Travis Barker, drummer for the popular band Blink-182 and star of The Kardashians, was recently hospitalized in life-threatening condition for a case of pancreatitis.

This condition, targeting the vital organ known as the pancreas, can be sudden or ongoing and can be caused by a number of different factors.

In the case of Travis Barker, who recently married Kourtney Kardashian, that would allegedly be a routine procedure known as an endoscopy going very wrong.

Here is everything you need to know about pancreatitis.

 3D Medical Animation still shot of pancreas showing acute pancreatitis. (credit: Wikimedia Commons) 3D Medical Animation still shot of pancreas showing acute pancreatitis. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)
What is pancreatitis? What are its symptoms?

Pancreatitis is the condition that occurs when either enzymes or digestive juices attack the pancreas, triggering redness and inflammation. 

The pancreas itself is a vital organ located behind the stomach on the left side of one's belly. This gland has two primary functions: Making and sending enzymes to the intensities to break down food and making and sending the hormones insulin and glucagon to control blood sugar.

These are both critical functions, though you can live without a pancreas, so long as you use insulin and pancreatic enzyme supplements to ensure your body continues to function.

Pancreatitis has a number of symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, fevers, a buildup of fluids, decreased blood pressure, jaundice (a yellowing of one's skin and eyes), rapid heart rate and severe pain.

However, there are also two different types of pancreatitis: Acute pancreatitis and chronic pancreatitis. Symptoms can vary between these two, though the main symptom of both is the pain, centered in the abdomen but which can also spread to the back.

What is the difference between acute pancreatitis and chronic pancreatitis?

Essentially, the main difference is that acute pancreatitis is sudden while chronic pancreatitis is ongoing. 

Both are associated with some different symptoms and outcomes.

For acute pancreatitis, symptoms tend to last a shorter amount of time and the pancreas can return to normal afterwards, as noted by John Hopkins University. However, it can also cause serious problems and even be deadly in some cases.

Chronic pancreatitis, however, does not start with sudden inflammation and pain like with acute pancreatitis, but rather is long-lasting and tends to come and go over time.

As a result, it doesn't last for a short time and does not let the pancreas return to normal afterwards. Rather, the chronic inflammation causes permanent damage, can even scar the pancreatic tissue and, in some severe cases, can even make the pancreas stop its primary functions: Making enzymes and insulin.

In addition, chronic pancreatitis also comes with additional symptoms, such as diarrhea, oily and extremely pungent-smelling bowel movements and weight loss, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH).

It is unclear what kind of pancreatitis Barker is suffering from, though due to the sudden onset, it seems likely that it is acute pancreatitis.

"During the endoscopy, I had a very small polyp removed right in a very sensitive area, usually handled by specialists, which unfortunately damaged a critical pancreatic drainage tube."

Travis Barker

What causes pancreatitis?

There are a number of causes, and these tend to differ between acute pancreatitis and chronic pancreatitis. 

Among acute pancreatitis sufferers, the most common cause is through gallstones

These stones tend to get stuck in bile ducts or pancreatic ducts, which can stop enzymes from getting out. 

This can also happen to chronic pancreatitis sufferers, though the most common causes of it are heavy alcohol use and a genetic pancreas disorder.

However, there are other causes. These include high levels of lipids and calcium; certain diseases like salmonella, mumps and hepatitis A or B; cystic fibrosis; tumors; cigarette use; the use of certain medications like steroids; an injury or surgery in the area; or sometimes there is simply no known cause at all, something referred to by the NIH as idiopathic pancreatitis.

What happened to Travis Barker?

In the case of Barker, the drummer posted on Instagram explaining the cause was the endoscopy procedure, despite previous reports indicating that it was a colonoscopy. 

Endoscopy is a term used to refer to a number of procedures that make use of a tool called an endoscope that is inserted through a natural opening in the body

In the case of a colonoscopy, the endoscope is inserted into the rectum to look at one's colon.

How can a colonoscopy cause pancreatitis?

According to Barker, it resulted in damage to a pancreatic drainage tube.

"During the endoscopy, I had a very small polyp removed right in a very sensitive area, usually handled by specialists, which unfortunately damaged a critical pancreatic drainage tube," he wrote on his Instagram story. "This resulted in severe life-threatening pancreatitis."

It is known that colonoscopies can cause pancreatitis, however, it is extremely rare and can sometimes be missed

Exactly how this happens is unclear, but as noted by a 2019 paper published in the International Journal of Surgery Case Reports, these causes can range from medical trauma caused by the endoscope, external pressure and transmural colonic burns.

How do you diagnose pancreatitis?

A number of tests can be employed by doctors to see if you have pancreatitis. This can include ultrasounds, endoscopic ultrasounds, X-rays, CT scan, MRI using magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP) and so on.

Blood tests might also be employed.

How is pancreatitis treated? How long does pancreatitis take to heal?

Simply put, it is important to let it heal. This will usually include a stay in the hospital for a couple days, given fluids via IV and pain medicine and antibiotics if needed.

Some cases will also require patients to go on a diet of low-fat food and clear liquids. But severe cases might require the use of a feeding tube.

Overall, one's condition should improve in just a few days, though in case of problems, other treatment methods may need to be used, such as a nasogastric tube (NG tube) to remove fluids and surgery to remove gallstones or the gallbladder.

For chronic pancreatitis sufferers, longer-term treatment will be needed such as avoiding cigarettes or alcohol, going on a diet, taking insulin or enzyme supplements and in some cases, surgery to remove the damaged parts of the pancreas and even perform a special transplant.