Acute Pancreatitis

Written by Brindles Lee Macon and Winnie Yu | Published on August 16, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD


Chances are, you don’t know a lot about your pancreas. But when the pancreas becomes inflamed, you’re going to feel the pain. Acute pancreatitis is an inflammation in the pancreas, an organ found behind the stomach and near the small intestine. The inflammation occurs suddenly and will cause pain and swelling in the upper left side of your abdomen. The pancreas makes and distributes insulin, enzymes, and other hormones you need to be healthy.

What Causes Acute Pancreatitis?

The cause of acute pancreatitis may be direct or indirect. Direct causes are those that affect the pancreas itself, its tissues or ducts. Indirect causes are those that result from diseases or conditions that originate somewhere else in the body.

Direct Causes

One of the major causes of acute pancreatitis is linked to the enzymes it produces. Usually, these enzymes become active only after they enter the small intestine. If these enzymes become active in the pancreas, instead of the small intestines, they will cause bleeding, swelling, and pain in pancreatic tissues. In addition, the blood vessels found in the pancreas may be damaged.

Other direct causes of inflammation:

  • your immune system suddenly attacks your pancreas
  • you have a blocked pancreatic duct
  • you have an obstructed common bile duct
  • you experience pancreatic or gallbladder damage from surgery or injury
  • you have excessive triglycerides in your blood

Indirect Causes

  • Cystic fibrosis—a serious condition that affects the lungs, liver and pancreas.
  • Kawasaki disease—a disease that occurs in children younger than age 5.
  • Viruses—viral infections, such as the mumps and mycoplasma pneumonia, may damage the pancreas.
  • Reye’s syndrome—another virus that may affect the liver and cause problems in the pancreas.
  • Medications—certain medications that contain estrogen or corticosteroids need to be monitored.

Who Is at Risk For Acute Pancreatitis?

You may be at risk for pancreatic inflammation if you drink excessive amounts of alcohol or smoke tobacco products. Having a family history of cancer, inflammation or another condition of the pancreas also places you at risk. Men are more at risk than women; however, children may be affected as well.

Recognizing the Symptoms of Acute Pancreatitis

The predominant symptom is pain that typically occurs on the upper left side of the abdomen. It also occurs in the center of your abdomen as well.

The pain may vary depending on certain factors:

  • It can be very painful within minutes of drinking or consuming food.
  • It may spread from your abdomen to your back or left shoulder blade area.
  • It may last for several days at a time.
  • It may be more painful when you lie directly on your back.

Other major symptoms include:

  • fever
  • nausea and/or vomiting
  • sweating
  • jaundice-like appearance
  • diarrhea
  • bloating in the abdomen

Diagnosing Acute Pancreatitis

To help diagnose your condition, your doctor may perform both physical and diagnostic exams. The exams may include several types of blood testing as well as liver and urine tests. He may order an ultrasound, CT scan, or MRI testing to get a better look inside your body. These types of diagnostic tests produce images of your pancreas.

Treating Acute Pancreatitis

You may be admitted into the hospital for further testing and to make sure you get enough fluids, usually through intravenous methods. Your physician may order medications to clear up the inflammation and any infection that may have set in. If none of these treatments work, surgery to remove damaged tissue (including the gallbladder and pancreas) or to repair the blocked duct may be required.

What Is to Be Expected in the Long Term?

In most cases, symptoms go away within a week of treatment. However, in some cases, the pancreatitis may return and cause further inflammation.

Preventing Acute Pancreatitis

You can help prevent acute pancreatitis by watching the amount of alcohol you consume. Alcohol may damage your liver, pancreas, and the ducts that are found within them. Children under 19 should not take aspirin unless prescribed by their physician. Aspirin may cause Reye’s syndrome in children.

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