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Acute pancreatitis is the inflammation of the pancreas, a serious emergency with no specific treatment. The pancreas, a digestive gland, can become inflamed for many reasons, but mainly as a complication from gallstones or excess alcohol intake. If severe, the pancreas may lose its blood supply, a complication called pancreatic necrosis that can be detected by computed tomography (CT) scanning.  D... more

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A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia.

Acute pancreatitis

Last reviewed: February 11, 2014.

Acute pancreatitis is sudden swelling and inflammation of the pancreas.

Causes

The pancreas is an organ located behind the stomach that produces chemicals called enzymes, which are needed to digest food. It also produces the hormones insulin and glucagon. Most of the time, the enzymes are only active after they reach the small intestine.

When these enzymes become active inside the pancreas, they digest the tissue of the pancreas. This causes swelling, bleeding (hemorrhage), and damage to the organ and its blood vessels. This condition 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. The two most common causes of pancreatitis in the United States are heavy alcohol use and gallstones.

Alcohol use is responsible for up to 70% of cases in the United States. Acute pancreatitis typically requires 5 to 8 drinks per day for 5 or more years. Gallstones are the next most common cause. The condition develops when the gallstones travel out of the gallbladder into the bile ducts, where they block the opening that drains the common bile duct and pancreatic duct (ampulla). Genetics may be a factor in some cases. Sometimes, the cause is not known.

Other conditions that have been linked to pancreatitis are:

Other causes include:

Symptoms

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

  • May be worse within minutes after eating or drinking at first, especially 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 doctor will do a physical exam, which may show:

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 inflammation 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 (nasogastric suctioning). This may be done if vomiting and severe pain do not improve, or if a paralyzed bowel (paralytic ileus) develops. The tube will stay in for 1 - 2 days to 1 - 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:

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:

Repeat episodes of acute pancreatitis can lead to chronic pancreatitis.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your health care provider if:

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:

  • Avoid aspirin when treating a fever in children, especially if they may have a viral illness, to reduce the risk of Reye syndrome.
  • Do NOT drink too much alcohol.
  • Make sure children receive vaccines to protect them against mumps and other childhood illnesses.
  • Treat medical conditions that contribute to hypertriglyceridemia.

References

  1. Tenner S, Steinbert WM. Actue pancreatitis. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger & Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 9th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2010:chap 58.
  2. Tenner S, Baillie J, DeWitt J, et al. American College of Gastroenterology Guideline: Management of Acute Pancreatitis. Am J Gastroenterol. 2013; 108:1400-1415. [PubMed: 23896955]
  3. Forsmark CE. Pancreatitis. In: Goldman L, Shafer AI, eds. Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 146.

Review Date: 2/11/2014.

Reviewed by: Todd Eisner, MD, Private practice specializing in Gastroenterology, Boca Raton, FL. Affiliate Assistant Professor, Florida Atlantic University School of Medicine. 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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Copyright © 2013, A.D.A.M., Inc.

A.D.A.M., Inc. is accredited by URAC, also known as the American Accreditation HealthCare Commission (www.urac.org). URAC's accreditation program is an independent audit to verify that A.D.A.M. follows rigorous standards of quality and accountability. A.D.A.M. is among the first to achieve this important distinction for online health information and services. Learn more about A.D.A.M.'s editorial policy, editorial process and privacy policy. A.D.A.M. is also a founding member of Hi-Ethics and subscribes to the principles of the Health on the Net Foundation (www.hon.ch).

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only — they do not constitute endorsementscof those other sites. © 1997–2011 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

Copyright © 2013, A.D.A.M., Inc.

What works?

  • Nutritional support, through the intestine (enteral) versus by injection (parenteral) for people with acute pancreatitisNutritional support, through the intestine (enteral) versus by injection (parenteral) for people with acute pancreatitis
    The pancreas is a gland that lies behind the stomach. It produces enzymes that help digestion. Acute pancreatitis is an inflammation in the pancreas which causes severe pains in the stomach. Extra nutrition is needed to recover. However the pancreas needs rest in order to repair. Nutrition must therefore be given either by a tube into the intestines (enteral) or by injection (parenteral). This review found that patients with acute pancreatitis receiving enteral nutrition have fewer episodes of death, systemic infections, multiple organ failure and operative interventions. This data suggests that EN should be considered the standard of care for patients with acute pancreatitis requiring nutritional support.
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Figures

  • Digestive system.
    Endocrine glands.
    Pancreatitis, acute - CT scan.

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