Avicii Suffered From Pancreatitis -- What is It?

The inflammation of the pancreas can result from heavy alcohol use, smoking & obesity.

The music world is still mourning the death of Avicii, and with two autopsies revealing nothing suspicious about the 28-year-old DJ's death, many questions remain about how he died at such a young age. Avicii (born Tim Bergling), was found dead in a hotel room at the Muscat Hills Resort in Oman on Friday while on vacation, with officials ruling out foul play in the Grammy winner's death.     

So how did he die? At press time it's unclear, but Avicii was very open about his health issues, in particular his fight with pancreatitis, which forced a number of concert and tour cancellations and trips to the ER. Beginning in January 2012, when he was hospitalized in New York with acute pancreatitis tied to his heavy alcohol intake to surgery in March 2014 to remove his gallbladder and pancreas, the "Levels" star was laid low by multiple health issues related to the long, flat gland that is tucked behind the stomach in the upper abdomen.    

What is pancreatitis and what are the related health issues tied to the the condition? According to the Mayo Clinic, the condition is an inflammation of the gland that produces enzymes that help digestion and hormones that regulate the way your body processes sugar. The condition can be acute -- in which the inflammation appears suddenly and lasts for days -- or chronic, which occurs over many years, with mild cases fading away without treatment and severe ones with life-threatening complications.

"When there is damage to the pancreas from any cause, there is spillage of these enzymes in the pancreas and into the fat surrounding it," Dr. Rahul Pannala, director of the pancreas clinic at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona tells Billboard. Pannala, who did not treat Avicii and was speaking about pancreatitis in general terms, says that the most common causes are related to alcohol abuse and gallstones.

As was reportedly the case with Avicii, physicians removed his gall bladder and pancreas in 2014, likely due to recurring gallstones and pancreatitis. "We tend to remove the gall balder to reduce the risk of it happening again," Pannala says. "With young people, who are more likely to binge on alcohol, it can be very traumatic to the pancreas, which sets off pancreatitis, manifesting in severe abdominal pain, causing damage to the surrounding fat and adjacent structures." 

Among the symptoms of pancreatitis are: upper abdominal pain, abdominal pain that radiates to the back or feels worse after eating, fever, rapid pulse, nausea, vomiting, tenderness in the abdomen. Pannala says the condition occurs when digestive enzymes become activated while still in the pancreas, irritating the cells of the pancreas and causing inflammation. He likened pancreatitis to something like a heart attack, which the majority of sufferers can recover from if they take care of the underlying factors. Repeated bouts, however, can lead to chronic pancreatitis, causing scar tissue to form in the gland and a loss of functioning; a poorly functioning pancreas can lead to digestion problems and diabetes.

Avicii retired from touring 2016 after playing more than 800 shows around the globe, citing anxiety and exhaustion. In a 2013 interview with Time magazine, he admitted that for a time he was "drinking way too much [and] partying in general way too much." He said that his first bout of pancreatitis at 21 forced him to do a "180 and stop drinking." That same year in an interview with GQ, he described his discomfort with sudden fame and the pressures of traveling the world and living out of a suitcase. "There's free alcohol everywhere -- it's sort of weird if you don't drink," he said, adding that he imbibed at first because he didn't expect his fame to last. 

But it did and he developed an addiction that turned into champagne at night, Bloody Marys in the morning and wine on the plane, day after day. "I was so nervous," he told the magazine. "I just got into a habit, because you rely on that encouragement and self-confidence you get from alcohol, and then you get dependent on it." 

Pannala says there is no definitive age profile, but pancreatitis is more common in men, and when alcohol-related it tends to strike patients in their 20s-40s, making it one of the most common causes of hospitalization in the U.S. for gastric diseases, with costs for care rising into the billions of dollars annually. "Acute pancreatitis leads to irreversible scarring of the pancreas, and once that happens it stays with you can can lead to significant problems like severe pain and diabetes, typically after many decades of heavy drinking or in the presence of a genetic factor," he says. For younger patients, damage to the pancreas can be caused from extended periods of excessive drinking or consuming large amounts of alcohol in short periods of time, as well as early exposure to alcohol in the late teens and early 20s, when the pancreas is more susceptible to lasting damage. 

After his March 2014 surgery, Avicii, still suffering form health issues, was forced to cancel all his scheduled performances -- including a headlining slot at TomorrowWorld and Las Vegas residencies at XS and Encore Beach Club -- then postponing all this appearances for the year in September of 2015. By March 2016 Avicii announced his retirement from the road, performing his final show on Aug. 28, 2016 at the Ushuaïa Ibiza Beach Hotel.