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What is acute pancreatitis?

Acute pancreatitis is a serious and painful medical condition in which the pancreas becomes inflamed. This condition can develop quickly.

Around 20,000 people develop acute pancreatitis each year in England alone.

Seek medical advice immediately if severe abdominal pain develops quickly.

The pancreas

The pancreas is a leaf-shaped gland located behind the stomach and next to the duodenum: the first section of the small intestine. The pancreas has two primary functions:

  • Secreting digestive enzymes into the small intestine to aid the digestion of carbohydrates, proteins and fat.
  • Releasing the hormones insulin and glucagon into the bloodstream. These hormones are involved in blood glucose metabolism, regulating how the body stores and uses glucose for energy.

Symptoms of acute pancreatitis

  • Severe pain in the centre of the abdomen. The pain usually becomes steadily worse before becoming a constant ache. The pain may move from the abdomen to the back. Eating may make the pain worse. For some people the pain may be relieved by leaning forward or curling up into a ball.
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Jaundice

 

What causes acute pancreatitis?

Most cases of acute pancreatitis are due to gallstones or heavy alcohol use.

More men develop acute pancreatitis linked to alcohol abuse.

Women are more likely to have acute pancreatitis linked to gallstones.

How is acute pancreatitis diagnosed?

Acute pancreatitis is usually diagnosed after an emergency hospital admission.

A doctor will carry out a physical examination, check heart rate and breathing rate, and will ask about the symptoms.

The diagnosis may be confirmed with blood tests for higher than normal levels of the chemicals amylase and lipase.

Additional tests include a CT scan, X-ray or an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography or ERCP. This procedure uses a thin, flexible tube called an endoscope which sends pictures back from inside the digestive system.

How is acute pancreatitis treated?

Treatment for acute pancreatitis will deal with pain, preventing dehydration and an assessment of any underlying cause of the condition, such as gallstones.

Someone with mild acute pancreatitis will probably be admitted to a general hospital ward.

Painkillers, oxygen and IV fluids through a drip will usually be given. No food can be eaten until the inflammation has gone down, often around five days.

A person with acute pancreatitis will be advised to avoid alcohol for at least six months.

A person with severe acute pancreatitis will normally be admitted to a high dependency unit or ICU (intensive care unit).

Complications of acute pancreatitis

Complications of severe acute pancreatitis include:

  • Infected pancreatic necrosis, in which inflammation interrupts the blood supply to the pancreas. This can lead to tissue dying and infection.
  • Systemic inflammatory response syndrome, or SIRS, in which inflammation spreads to other parts of the body with the risk of organ failure.
  • Pseudocysts - sacs of fluid developing on the surface of the pancreas. Pseudocysts can cause bloating, indigestion or abdominal pain.

 

Can acute pancreatitis be prevented?

Avoiding alcohol misuse is an important way to help prevent acute pancreatitis.

Avoiding gallstones is also important. This may include eating a healthy diet, taking more exercise and losing weight if overweight or obese.

WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on February 15, 2017

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