Acute pancreatitis

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Definition

Acute pancreatitis is sudden swelling and inflammation of the pancreas.

Alternative Names

Gallstone pancreatitis; Pancreas - inflammation

Causes

The pancreas is an organ located behind the stomach. It produces the hormones insulin and glucagon. It also produces chemicals called enzymes needed to digest food.

Most of the time, the enzymes are only active after they reach the small intestine.

  • If these enzymes become active inside the pancreas, they can digest the tissue of the pancreas. This causes swelling, bleeding, and damage to the organ and its blood vessels.
  • This problem is called acute pancreatitis.

Acute pancreatitis affects men more often than women. Certain diseases, surgeries, and habits make you more likely to develop this condition.

  • Alcohol use is responsible for up to 70% of cases in the United States. About 5 to 8 drinks per day for 5 or more years can damage the pancreas.
  • Gallstones are the next most common cause. When the gallstones travel out of the gallbladder into the bile ducts, they block the opening that drains bile and enzymes. The bile and enzymes "back up" into the pancreas and cause swelling.
  • Genetics may be a factor in some cases. Sometimes, the cause is not known.

Other conditions that have been linked to pancreatitis are:

  • Autoimmune problems (when the immune system attacks the body)
  • Damage to the ducts or pancreas during surgery
  • High blood levels of a fat called triglycerides -- most often above 1,000 mg/dL
  • Injury to the pancreas from an accident

Other causes include:

  • After certain procedures used to diagnose gallbladder and pancreas problems (ERCP) or ultrasound guided biopsy
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Overactive parathyroid gland
  • Reye syndrome
  • Use of certain medicines (especially estrogens, corticosteroids, sulfonamides, thiazides, and azathioprine)
  • Certain infections that involve the pancreas

Symptoms

The main symptom of pancreatitis is pain felt in the upper left side or middle of the abdomen. The pain:

  • May be worse within minutes after eating or drinking at first, more commonly if foods have a high fat content
  • Becomes constant and more severe, lasting for several days
  • May be worse when lying flat on the back
  • May spread (radiate) to the back or below the left shoulder blade

People with acute pancreatitis often look ill and have a fever, nausea, vomiting, and sweating.

Other symptoms that may occur with this disease include:

Exams and Tests

The health care provider will do a physical exam, which may show:

  • Abdominal tenderness or lump (mass)
  • Fever
  • Low blood pressure
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Rapid breathing (respiratory) rate

Lab tests that show the release of pancreatic enzymes will be done. These include:

Other blood tests that can help diagnose pancreatitis or its complications include:

Imaging tests that can show swelling of the pancreas include:

Treatment

Treatment often requires a stay in the hospital. It may involve:

  • Pain medicines
  • Fluids given through a vein (IV)
  • Stopping food or fluid by mouth to limit the activity of the pancreas

A tube may be inserted through the nose or mouth to remove the contents of the stomach. This may be done if vomiting and severe pain do not improve. The tube will stay in for 1 to 2 days to 1 to 2 weeks.

Treating the condition that caused the problem can prevent repeated attacks.

In some cases, therapy is needed to:

In the most severe cases, surgery is needed to remove damaged, dead or infected pancreatic tissue.

Avoid smoking, alcoholic drinks, and fatty foods after the attack has improved.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Most cases go away in a week. However, some cases develop into a life-threatening illness.

The death rate is high with:

  • Bleeding in the pancreas has occurred
  • Liver, heart, or kidney problems are also present
  • An abscess forms the pancreas
  • There is death or necrosis of larger amounts of tissue in the pancreas

Sometimes the swelling and infection do not fully heal. Repeat episodes of pancreatitis may also occur. Either of these can lead to long-term damage of the pancreas.

Possible Complications

Pancreatitis can return. The chances of it returning depend on the cause, and how well it can be treated. Complications of acute pancreatitis may include:

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your provider if:

  • You have intense, constant abdominal pain.
  • You develop other symptoms of acute pancreatitis.

Prevention

You may lower your risk of new or repeat episodes of pancreatitis by taking steps to prevent the medical conditions that can lead to the disease:

  • DO NOT drink too much alcohol.
  • Make sure children receive vaccines to protect them against mumps and other childhood illnesses.
  • Treat medical problems that lead to high blood levels of triglycerides.

References

Forsmark CE. Pancreatitis. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 144.

Tenner S, Baillie J, DeWitt J, et al. American College of Gastroenterology guideline: management of acute pancreatitis. Am J Gastroenterol. 2013;108:1400-1415. PMID: 23896955 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23896955.

Tenner S, Steinbert WM. Acute pancreatitis. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger & Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 10th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 58.

Version Info

  • Last reviewed on 10/27/2015
  • Subodh K. Lal, MD, gastroenterologist with Gastrointestinal Specialists of Georgia, Austell, GA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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