Pancreatitis (cont.)

What are the symptoms of acute pancreatitis?

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. A person with acute pancreatitis usually looks and feels very ill and needs immediate medical attention. Other symptoms may include:

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

Severe acute pancreatitis may cause dehydration and low blood pressure. The heart, lungs, or kidneys can fail. If bleeding occurs in the pancreas, shock and even death may follow.

How is acute pancreatitis diagnosed?

While asking about a person's medical history and conducting a thorough physical examination, the doctor will order a blood test to assist in the diagnosis. During acute pancreatitis, the blood contains at least three times the normal amount of amylase and lipase, digestive enzymes formed in the pancreas. Changes may also occur in other body chemicals such as glucose, calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, and bicarbonate. After the person's condition improves, the levels usually return to normal.

Diagnosing acute pancreatitis is often difficult because of the deep location of the pancreas. The doctor will likely order one or more of the following tests:

  • Abdominal ultrasound. Sound waves are sent toward the pancreas through a handheld device that a technician glides over the abdomen. The sound waves bounce off the pancreas, gallbladder, liver, and other organs, and their echoes make electrical impulses that create a picture - called a sonogram - on a video monitor. If gallstones are causing inflammation, the sound waves will also bounce off them, showing their location.
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scan. The CT scan is a noninvasive X-ray that produces three-dimensional pictures of parts of the body. The person lies on a table that slides into a donut-shaped machine. The test may show gallstones and the extent of damage to the pancreas.
  • Endoscopic ultrasound (EUS). After spraying a solution to numb the patient's throat, the doctor inserts an endoscope - a thin, flexible, lighted tube - down the throat, through the stomach, and into the small intestine. The doctor turns on an ultrasound attachment to the scope that produces sound waves to create visual images of the pancreas and bile ducts.
  • Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP). MRCP uses magnetic resonance imaging, a noninvasive test that produces cross-section images of parts of the body. After being lightly sedated, the patient lies in a cylinder-like tube for the test. The technician injects dye into the patient's veins that helps show the pancreas, gallbladder, and pancreatic and bile ducts.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 7/3/2014

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