Acute Pancreatitis | Digestive Health Program | Loyola Medicine

Acute Pancreatitis

Overview and Facts about Acute Pancreatitis

Acute pancreatitis is a condition characterized by the sudden inflammation of the pancreas. Unlike chronic pancreatitis, acute pancreatitis can subside as quickly as it came, usually within a few days. People develop acute pancreatitis because of blockage of the pancreatic duct. This can lead to issues ranging from low-blood pressure to tissue death and organ failure.

Signs and Symptoms of Acute Pancreatitis

The most common symptom of acute pancreatitis is sharp pain that comes on suddenly and subsides a few minutes later. Pain may develop over a few days when the cause is heavy alcohol use. In this case, the pain is moderate to severe and typically remains steady for a number of days. Acute pancreatitis can last from a few days to a few weeks.

Signs and symptoms of acute pancreatitis include:

  • Fast pulse
  • Fever​
  • Low blood pressure
  • Nausea
  • Pain radiating to the back
  • Severe abdominal pain in the upper abdomen
  • Shallow, rapid breathing
  • Sudden pain reaching maximum intensity in minutes
  • Sweating
  • Vomiting

Causes and Risk Factors of Acute Pancreatitis

The two most common causes of acute pancreatitis are gallstones and heavy alcohol use. Gallstones can block the pancreatic duct. In a normal digestive health system, digestive fluids pass through this duct to help break down food. When the pancreatic duct becomes blocked, these fluids can begin to digest pancreatic cells and cause inflammation. Increased alcohol intake can irritate the pancreas, although the exact mechanism of inflammation is unknown.

Risk factors for developing acute pancreatitis include:

  • Development of pseudocysts​
  • Drugs such as ACE inhibitors, sulfa drugs or valproate
  • Gallstones
  • Heavy alcohol intake
  • Hereditary pancreatitis and cystic fibrosis
  • High levels of calcium, lipids or triglycerides in the blood

Tests and Diagnosis of Acute Pancreatitis

Diagnosis of acute pancreatitis is confirmed by laboratory and imaging tests. A blood test can reveal elevated levels of pancreatic enzymes in the blood, suggesting pancreatitis. Imaging tests (ultrasound, CT, MRI and endoscopy techniques) can show gallstones or other obstructions of the pancreas. During an endoscopy procedure, surgical instruments can also be passed through the tube, or scope, in order to remove anything blocking the pancreatic duct.   

Treatment and Care for Acute Pancreatitis

Treatment of acute pancreatitis can involve hospitalization to restore fluids and manage pain. During this time, patients should avoid food and liquids that stimulate the pancreas. If signs of infection are detected, a course of antibiotics will be started and dead tissue will be removed. In extremely severe cases, a feeding tube may be inserted into the small intestine.

While most patients with acute pancreatitis will pass gallstones spontaneously, removal may be required through surgery or endoscopy. Similarly, pseudocysts causing blockage will be drained either through a catheter or during a surgical procedure.