Pancreatitis - Acute
The pancreas is a solid organ behind the stomach. It has cells that produce enzymes to break down food during digestion. Pancreatitis is a condition in which the pancrease becomes swollen and tender. It can be either acute (sudden and severe) or chronic (milder and recurring).
Affecting 50,000 to 80,000 Americans each year, acute pancreatitis comes on suddenly. Symptoms include pain in the upper part of the stomach area, nausea, vomiting, bloating, belching, hiccups or collapse. The pain may be steady and radiate to the back, side or lower stomach area. There may also be a fever, shortness of breath or kidney problems if the symptoms are severe.
Causes and Risk Factors
Pancreatitis can have several triggers, including:
- Pancreatic cancer
- A block in the ducts between the pancreas and the liver. This includes gallstones that force pancreatic fluids to back up, causing inflammation and permanent damage.
- Chemicals in the digestive system
- Inflammation of nearby organs
- Antibiotics, such as sulfa drugs and tetracycline
- High exposure to estrogen and some diuretics
- Binge drinking or regularly drinking large amounts of alcohol
- Abdominal surgery
- Complications from a screening procedure called endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP)
- Infections (such as mumps or viral hepatitis)
- High levels of calcium or triglycerides in the blood
People at risk of gallstones are also at risk for acute pancreatitis. This includes pregnant women, women who have had many pregnancies and people who are overweight.
To make a diagnosis, the doctor will touch the abdomen, which is usually hard and tender. The patient may also be constipated, have a slow pulse and show signs of jaundice.
The doctor may also request these tests:
- Computed tomography (CT) scan to see if the pancreas is swelling or if there is fluid in the abdomen or pancreatic "pseudocysts" (pockets of enzymes that can burst, damaging nearby tissues and organs)
- Ultrasound of the gallbladder to see if gallstones are in the ducts
- Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), a minimally invasive procedure to find and remove blocks in the gallbladder and bile ducts and diagnose pancreatic tumors. It is more accurate than CT scans.
Acute pancreatitis that is caused by drinking alcohol can turn into chronic pancreatitis with continued alcohol use. The best treatment option, even after only one episode of acute pancreatitis, is to simply stop drinking. Keeping one's weight under control may prevent gallstone-induced attacks.
Mild cases usually cure themselves in a few days. Severe ones can last several weeks. If you suspect pancreatitis, avoid all food and drink, as they will only make the symptoms worse.
Patients with severe cases are admitted to the hospital and given pain relievers and intravenous (IV) fluids. For cases that last more than a few days, nutritional supplements are usually added to the IV lines.
When gallstones are suspected, the gallbladder is often removed.
In life-threatening cases where a blockage of the pancreatic duct is suspected, the doctor may do an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP). This uses a light and miniature camera on a tube so the doctor can find and remove the blockage. Sometimes surgery is used to drain a cyst or stop bleeding.