Travis Barker's Pancreatitis Reportedly 'Triggered' By Colonoscopy—But Doctors Say It's 'Extremely Rare'

Colonoscopies remain essential for preventing colon cancer, diagnosing cancer and other diseases, and saving lives.

Travis Barker pancreatitis
Photo: Leonard Ortiz/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images

Travis Barker, the 46-year-old drummer for Blink-182, was hospitalized Tuesday morning at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, according to TMZ—reportedly due to pancreatitis, potentially "triggered" by a recent colonoscopy.

Pancreatitis is the clinical term for inflammation of the pancreas, a gland in the abdomen that aids in digestion and blood sugar regulation. In cases of acute pancreatitis, the inflammation can cause severe symptoms, like fever, nausea or vomiting, and pain in the abdomen. Research estimates over 270,000 hospitalizations for acute pancreatitis each year, with over 80% of cases being mild.

While acute pancreatitis is typically caused by gallstones (hardened deposits in the gallbladder), it can, in very rare cases, result from even a routine colonoscopy. Experts stress, however, that it's still far too early in Barker's case to directly link the screening procedure to his reported pancreatitis.

"I think more facts need to be known about the situation before commenting [that] the colonoscopy caused it," Suneal Agarwal, MD, associate professor of gastroenterology, hepatology, and nutrition at Baylor College of Medicine, told Health. "It's extremely rare. I can't stress the fact enough that it is very, very rare to get pancreatitis after a colonoscopy."

While the details of Barker's condition are not yet known publicly, here's what we do know about the uncommon association between pancreatitis and colonoscopies—and why the benefits of the screening still far outweigh any potential complications.

Can You Get Pancreatitis From a Colonoscopy?

A colonoscopy is a procedure during which a doctor examines your rectum and colon through a colonoscope—a flexible tube with a light and camera at the end. The purpose of the procedure is to look for any abnormalities in the lower gastrointestinal tract, such as inflamed tissue, ulcers, polyps, or cancer.

Colonoscopies are considered safe, standard procedures. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), there are only about four to eight serious complications for every 10,000 procedures.

The most common complications following a colonoscopy include bleeding and perforation (a hole in the wall) of the colon, typically among patients who need a polyp removed for observation. Doctors can treat bleeding right away—or as soon as it emerges—and perforations can be treated with additional surgery. Additional complications include adverse reactions to the sedatives used, severe pain in the abdomen, or (in extremely rare cases) death.

"These risks are much more common than pancreatitis," said Dr. Agarwal, who added that, though pancreatitis following colonoscopy has been reported, it is very uncommon.

"Hundreds of thousands of colonoscopies are performed every year," said Dr. Agarwal. "And in terms of the rate of pancreatitis, it has been associated with colonoscopy on a case report level, meaning like less than 10, per se, that have been reported in medical literature."

One of those case reports was published in 2009 in the Canadian Journal of Gastroenterology. In that report, the authors detailed the story of a 60-year-old woman who underwent a gastroscopy (a scope of the upper gastrointestinal tract) and a colonoscopy to investigate a case of iron deficiency anemia. Doctors said the colonoscopy was "technically difficult" meaning they had trouble maneuvering the scope inside her large intestine. "Almost immediately" following the procedure, she developed cramping and abdominal pain, followed by nausea and constipation.

The patient was eventually diagnosed with pancreatitis likely caused by trauma to the pancreas during the colonoscopy, the authors wrote.

Though the link between pancreatitis and colonoscopies are largely unexplained, Dr. Agarwal adds that trauma—as in the previous case report—may be one explanation. "The colon is next to the pancreas, just like everything else in your abdomen," he said. "And if there's some kind of trauma…that through the colon it's irritating the pancreas…that can be one mechanism."

But there are a lot of moving parts to a colonoscopy, which means there are many potential causes. "The drugs that are given to help sedate a patient for colonoscopy—that has also been implicated in causing pancreatitis," said Dr. Agarwal. "So there's no definitive medical reason why a colonoscopy would cause pancreatitis, there's only assumptive reasons, and [another] is medication."

Other Causes of Pancreatitis—And How the Condition Is Treated

There are few different factors that can cause pancreatitis—mainly gallstones (usually acute pancreatitis) and heavy alcohol use (usually chronic pancreatitis). "Both of those two things account for over 80%–90% of the causes of pancreatitis in the country," said Dr. Agarwal. "And there are hundreds of thousands of pancreatitis [cases] that happen in the country…independent of colonoscopy."

According to the NIDDK, other less common causes of pancreatitis include viral or parasitic infections, abdominal injuries, pancreatic cancer, pancreas divisum (a birth defect in the pancreas), or a diagnostic procedure called an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP).

Treatment options for acute pancreatitis depend on the severity of the condition. Milder cases of acute pancreatitis tend to go away with rest and treatment through pain medication and antibiotics. A low-fat diet may also be part of the treatment plan, as well as a feeding tube if the patient is unable to eat. In more severe cases, surgery or other procedures—including ERCP again—may be necessary.

Colonoscopies Are Still Necessary for Cancer Screening

"Colonoscopy has been shown time and again to prevent colon cancer [and] remove polyps that may turn into cancer," said Dr. Agarwal. "So colonoscopy is a very important exam and is considered part of health preventative services that most Americans should undergo."

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) and the American Cancer Society both recommend adults of average risk begin regular screenings for colon cancer at 45 years old, through a colonoscopy or a stool-based test (colonoscopies are considered the gold standard for cancer detection), and then every five to 10 years, depending on personal situations and findings. In 2018, about 60% of Americans aged 50–70 met these recommendations for colonoscopies.

Individuals who are at a higher risk of developing colon cancer—like those with a family history of the disease, or people with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or certain genetic syndromes—may need to be tested earlier than 45 and more often than those with an average risk.

The CDC estimates nearly half a million Americans were diagnosed with colon cancer from 2014 to the start of 2019, and the disease is now the second most common cause of cancer death among men and women, combined.

Overall, colonoscopies are essential, life-saving procedures, and experts stress that Barker's experience—if reports are correct and his pancreatitis was indeed caused by a colonoscopy—should not deter anyone from the cancer screening.

"Colonoscopy is a very important procedure that can help save people's lives and help prevent colon cancer," said Dr. Agarwal. "So it's unfortunate that Travis Barker [may have] had this happen to him, but it should not dissuade people from undergoing these types of procedures."

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