Pancreatitis facts

*Pancreatitis facts medical author: Charles P. Davis, MD, PhD

  • Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas, the organ that secretes digestive enzymes into the gastrointestinal tract; it also synthesizes and secretes insulin and glucagon.
  • Pancreatitis may be caused by gallstones (by blocking the pancreatic duct outlet), chronic alcohol use, trauma, medications, infections, tumors, and genetic abnormalities.
  • Acute pancreatitis with upper abdominal pain that is often severe and constant over several days, and may be accompanied by fever, nausea, vomiting, tachycardia, and abdominal swelling; severe cases can develop dehydration, low blood pressure, shock, organ failure, and death.
  • Acute pancreatitis is diagnosed preliminarily by the patient's history, physical exam and the levels of amylase and lipase in the blood (elevated in pancreatitis patients); other tests such as abdominal ultrasound, CT scan, endoscopic ultrasound, or MCRP (Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography) may be done to detect gallstones or to identify the damaged pancreas and other blood tests may need to be done (glucose and electrolyte levels)
  • Acute pancreatitis is usually treated by hospitalization for IV fluid administration (and often antibiotics) as the patient is not to eat or drink for a few days; many patients will require an ERCP, a procedure that allows a flexible tube with attachments, including a camera, to be inserted into the ducts that empty into the GI tract and can be used to do several procedures such as gallstone removal, sphincterotomy, and others to help treat the patient.
  • Chronic pancreatitis is pancreatic inflammation that does not heal, gets worse over time and results in permanent pancreatic damage; the most common cause is heavy alcohol use over years, but conditions such as hereditary disorders, cystic fibrosis, autoimmune problems and other causes result in chronic pancreatitis.
  • Chronic pancreatitis has many of the same symptoms of acute, but may include diarrhea, oily stools and weight loss.
  • Chronic pancreatitis is diagnosed essentially the same way acute is diagnosed and is often confused with acute pancreatitis; a good history of chronic problems that includes an accurate alcohol intake history, weight loss history or family history can help make the differential diagnosis.
  • Chronic pancreatitis is treated similar to acute, but the hospital stay may be prolonged because of the need for pain, fluid and nutritional support; synthetic enzymes may be prescribed when a more normal diet can be consumed by the patient.
  • Pancreatitis in children is rare, but can occur secondary to hereditary disease or trauma to the pancreas; often in these rare instances, the cause is unknown.
  • Research is ongoing at the NIH (National Institutes of Health) to further understand causes and develop treatments for all types of pancreatitis.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 7/3/2014

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Acute & Chronic Pancreatitis Symptoms

Acute pancreatitis usually begins with gradual or sudden pain in the upper abdomen that sometimes extends through the back. The pain may be mild at first and feel worse after eating. But the pain is often severe and may become constant and last for several days. Other symptoms may include:

  • swollen and tender abdomen
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • fever
  • rapid pulse

Most people with chronic pancreatitis experience upper abdominal pain, although some people have no pain at all. The pain may spread to the back, feel worse when eating or drinking, and become constant and disabling. Other symptoms include:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • weight loss
  • diarrhea
  • oily stools