What is pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas. The pancreas is a large gland behind the stomach and close to the duodenum—the first part of the small intestine. The pancreas secretes digestive juices, or enzymes, into the duodenum through a tube called the pancreatic duct. Pancreatic enzymes join with bile—a liquid produced in the liver and stored in the gallbladder—to digest food. The pancreas also releases the hormones insulin and glucagon into the bloodstream. These hormones help the body regulate the glucose it takes from food for energy.
Normally, digestive enzymes secreted by the pancreas do not become active until they reach the small intestine. But when the pancreas is inflamed, the enzymes inside it attack and damage the tissues that produce them.
Pancreatitis can be acute or chronic. Either form is serious and can lead to complications. In severe cases, bleeding, infection, and permanent tissue damage may occur.
What are the causes of acute pancreatitis?
Some people have more than one attack and recover completely after each, but acute pancreatitis can be a severe, life-threatening illness with many complications. About 80,000 cases occur in the United States each year; some 20 percent of them are severe. Acute pancreatitis occurs more often in men than women.
Acute pancreatitis is usually caused by gallstones or by drinking too much alcohol, but these aren't the only causes. If alcohol use and gallstones are ruled out, other possible causes of pancreatitis should be carefully examined so that appropriate treatment-if available-can begin.
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
- a swollen and tender abdomen
- nausea and vomiting
- a 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.
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.
Exams and Tests
When a healthcare provider identifies symptoms suggestive of pancreatitis, specific questions are asked about the person's symptoms, lifestyle and habits, and medical and surgical history. The answers to these questions and the results of the physical examination allow the healthcare provider to rule out some conditions and to zero-in on the correct diagnosis.
In most cases, laboratory tests are needed. The tests check for several possibilities, including the following:
- Pancreas, liver, and kidney functions (including levels of pancreatic enzymes amylase and lipase)
- Signs of infections
- Blood cell counts indicating signs of anemia
- Pregnancy test
- Blood sugar, electrolyte levels (an imbalance suggests dehydration) and calcium level
Self-Care at Home
For most people, self-care alone is not enough to treat pancreatitis. People may be able to make themselves more comfortable during an attack, but they will most likely continue to have attacks until treatment is received for the underlying cause of the symptoms. If symptoms are mild, people might try the following preventive measures:
- Stop all alcohol consumption.
- Adopt a liquid diet consisting of foods such as broth, gelatin, and soups. These simple foods may allow the inflammation process to get better.
- Over-the-counter pain medications may also help.
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