Acute Pancreatitis Symptoms, Causes & Treatment Options

Acute pancreatitis is the inflammation of the pancreas, which hurts severely and can lead to complications if it persists. The most common causes are gallstones and alcoholism.

Acute Pancreatitis Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out if your symptoms point to acute pancreatitis

Contents

  1. Overview
  2. Symptoms
  3. Potential Causes
  4. Treatment, Prevention and Relief
  5. When to Seek Further Consultation
  6. References

What Is Acute Pancreatitis?

Summary

Acute pancreatitis refers to the rapid onset of inflammation in the pancreas. The pancreas is a solid organ that sits just below the stomach and is essential in the digestion of food and minerals. The most common symptoms are severe pain in the center of the abdomen, fever, nausea, and vomiting. The causes are most commonly gallstones and alcoholism. The treatment consists of supportive care, including intravenous fluids, pain medication, and taking nothing by mouth. In addition, treatment of the underlying cause is crucial. Prevention of the disease centers around risk factor reduction, such as treating alcoholism, gallstones, avoiding certain drugs and toxins, and lowering blood triglycerides (if they are abnormally high).

Recommended care

Acute Pancreatitis Symptoms

Main symptoms

The following symptoms are common:

  • Pain in the center of your abdomen: The pain may radiate toward your back and may worsen after eating. This pain does not go away for at least 30 minutes.
  • Pain in your abdomen that comes on after a recent alcohol binge
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal tenderness
  • Fast heartbeat

Other symptoms

The following symptoms can manifest in severe cases. Development of these symptoms may lead to admission to the intensive care unit:

  • Low blood pressure
  • Peritonitis: inflammation of the sac that lines the abdomen
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Malnutrition
  • High blood sugar
  • Arrythmia: heart rhythm problems

Complications of acute pancreatitis

The following may occur if the pancreatitis doesn’t get better or if you repeatedly have pancreatitis (thus causing chronic pancreatitis)

  • Pseudocyst: There can be a buildup of fluid which can pop and lead to bleeding and infection.
  • Infection: The pancreas can become less resilient to infection when it is inflamed.
  • Necrotization: death of the pancreas
  • Kidney failure
  • Diabetes
  • Chronic pancreatitis: This can lead to scarring of the pancreas and increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer.
  • Multi-organ failure
  • Death

Acute Pancreatitis Causes

The vast majority of pancreatitis (70%) is caused by a gallstone blocking the duct that drains the pancreas or by alcoholism. An obstructing stone causes a backup of pancreatic enzymes into the pancreas, which is injurious to the organ because the enzymes begin to digest the pancreas as if it were food. Alcohol is directly toxic to the pancreas. If acute pancreatitis occurs frequently, it can lead to chronic pancreatitis.

Other causes of pancreatitis

The following are less common causes of pancreatitis that account for the remaining 30% of cases:

  • Previous endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP)
  • Previous surgery or trauma to the belly
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Severely high blood triglycerides (fats)
  • High blood calcium levels
  • Infection
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Use of sulfa drugs, water pills, HIV medicine, or immunosuppressants
  • Unknown cause

Risk factors

In addition to the above factors, the following may indirectly increase the chance of pancreatitis:

  • Female gender
  • Above age 40
  • Being overweight
  • Eating a high-fat diet
  • Alcohol addiction
  • Hyperparathyroidism

Acute Pancreatitis Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out if your symptoms point to acute pancreatitis

Treatment Options, Relief, and Prevention for Acute Pancreatitis

Treatment

Diagnosis of pancreatitis is typically straightforward. The presence of moderate to severe belly pain combined with an elevated level of pancreatic enzymes in your blood is diagnostic. Additional testing may include:

  • Ultrasound of the abdomen: looks for gallstones and inflammation without radiation
  • CT (CAT) scan: provides high-quality images of the gallbladder and pancreas
  • MRI: an alternative to CT scan without radiation
  • Stool testing: assesses for fecal fat content to look for chronic pancreatitis

Once pancreatitis is diagnosed, it is treated in two ways. First and foremost, the healthcare providers will ensure your body is supported through the acute episode. This means you will be admitted to the hospital. The health care team may provide medicine to support your blood pressure, give you intravenous fluids, and provide pain control. You will not be allowed to eat or drink. This allows time for the pancreas to recover. Later on, you will be allowed to drink clear liquids, and then slowly, you will be allowed to have food again. In addition, you will be closely monitored for signs of infection. This may include additional blood tests or imaging.

The second treatment of the disease is to withdraw the injurious agent to the pancreas. This may include:

  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography: a procedure that involves the placement of a camera into your intestines while you are asleep. With this camera, an obstructing gallstone can be removed. One of the main risks of the procedure is, paradoxically, pancreatitis.
  • Surgery to remove gallstones
  • Surgery on the pancreas
  • Treatment for alcoholism
  • Treatment of high blood triglycerides, calcium, or infection

Most cases of pancreatitis will resolve in a few days with complete recovery.

Prevention

Prevention of pancreatitis involves avoidance of the risk factors mentioned above, such as:

  • Treating alcoholism if you drink too much
  • Removal of the gallbladder if it is full of stones (cholecystectomy)
  • Stop smoking
  • Treat hyperparathyroidism, if you have it
  • Adopt a low-fat diet

After you get pancreatitis, it is imperative that you remove/treat the causative agent. This is because each time you have pancreatitis in the future, you increase the chance that you develop acute pancreatitis and you also increase the chance of developing chronic pancreatitis. Chronic pancreatitis is a morbid disease, which indirectly increases the chance of premature death. If you developed pancreatitis from alcohol, then it is very likely you will develop pancreatitis again in the future if you do not stop drinking completely.

When to Seek Further Consultation for Acute Pancreatitis

Seek consultation immediately if you have pain in the center of your abdomen that does not go away after 30 minutes. This is especially true if the pain radiates to your back and if you also have nausea. If this occurs, you should go to the emergency room.

If you have had pancreatitis before and you start to experience your pancreatitis symptoms again, then you should go to the emergency room.