Acute pancreatitis

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at April 23, 2016
StartDiseasesAcute pancreatitis

The pancreas plays a vital role in digestion, metabolism and the production of hormones. Pancreatitis refers to the inflammation of the pancreas. Acute pancreatitis is pancreatitis that occurs suddenly and may be temporary but nonetheless poses significant health risks. According to the National Pancreas Foundation, the mortality rate for acute pancreatitis is 10%.


Definition & Facts

Acute pancreatitis occurs when the pancreas suddenly becomes inflamed. Acute pancreatitis can range from mild or severe. Acute pancreatitis can cause discomfort and mild pain, and when severe, can become life-threatening. Severe pancreatitis can cause tissue damage or tissue death, infection, the formation of cysts, and bleeding. Severe pancreatitis can lead to damage of other organs, including the heart, lungs, and kidneys. Pancreatitis is more likely to appear in men between the ages of 30 and 40.

Symptoms & Complaints

One of the first signs that the pancreas is inflamed is pain in the upper abdomen. Other symptoms of acute pancreatitis can include nausea, vomiting, fever, increased heart rate, and a swollen abdomen.

The inflammation associated with the swollen abdomen can cause pain in the upper abdominal pain that can travel up into the back. The individual will want to see a doctor at the first sign of tenderness in the abdomen or pain that moves from the abdomen to the back. The longer the acute pancreatitis goes untreated, the more severe the condition can become.


One of the main causes of acute pancreatitis is consuming high levels of alcohol for an extended period of time. Individuals who battle alcoholism are more likely to develop acute pancreatitis that can later turn into chronic pancreatitis.

Acute pancreatitis can also be caused by other conditions that affect the pancreas such as gallstones. If an individual is overweight, he or she may also have high cholesterol which is another cause of gallstones, in turn causing acute pancreatitis.

Certain foods can trigger the pancreas to become more inflamed, especially foods that are high in fat. Extended use of certain medicines can be damaging to the pancreas, causing acute pancreatitis. Infections of the pancreas, trauma, or surgery can also be causes of acute pancreatitis. Acute pancreatitis can also be caused by a viral infection, hormonal abnormalities, or genetic mutations.

Diagnosis & Tests

Because pancreatitis is often associated with high levels of the enzymes, amylase and lipase, a doctor will begin diagnosing for acute pancreatitis by taking blood tests that test the levels of these enzymes. Because the pancreas also controls the insulin created in the body, doctors can determine if the pancreas is functioning properly through a glucose tolerance test. This test can determine the damage to the pancreatic cells.

Further tests that can be done to determine if the pancreas is inflamed include ultrasounds, CT scans, and MRIs, all of which can allow the doctor to see images of the pancreas. An ultrasound can help the doctor see if there are gallstones present that could be causing the inflammation associated with acute pancreatitis.

Another test to determine if the individual has pancreatitis is a biopsy. With a biopsy, the doctor will use a needle to remove a piece of tissue to study further. Further tests can be done to the individual's blood, urine, and stools.

Treatment & Therapy

The treatment and therapy that an individual will need to eliminate his or her acute pancreatitis will depend on how severe the condition has become. If it is still only a mild case of acute pancreatitis, the individual can usually be treated with pain medications and IV fluids, although they will usually need to stay in the hospital for the duration of their treatment.

If the acute pancreatitis is severe, the individual may be admitted into the intensive care unit so that doctors can monitor potential damage to other organs, including the heart, lungs, and kidneys. In the most severe cases of pancreatitis, the pancreatic tissue may die. If the pancreatic tissue has died, surgery will need to be performed to remove the dead tissue. If the pancreatitis is caused by gallstones, they will need to be removed.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

If an individual's acute pancreatitis is caused by an alcohol problem, the best way to prevent pancreatitis in the future is to quit drinking. But because alcohol is not the only cause of acute pancreatitis, there are a number of other ways to prevent acute pancreatitis from occurring. To stop gallstones from developing, one should stick to a low-fat diet to reduce cholesterol.

Because gallstones can also occur frequently in people who are overweight, individuals can help prevent acute pancreatitis by getting enough exercise and losing weight. Another way to prevent acute pancreatitis is to stop smoking or avoid smoking.