Pancreas Cysts | Digestive Health Program | Loyola Medicine

Pancreas Cysts

Overview and Facts about Pancreas Cysts

Pancreas cysts are cysts that occur in the pancreas, which is the large gland that sits behind the stomach and helps with digestion and processing sugar. Some cysts in the pancreas are pockets of fluid lined with scar or inflammatory tissue rather than the cells that typically line cysts. Cysts lined with these cells are called pseudocysts.

Symptoms and Signs of Pancreas Cysts

Many cysts in the pancreas do not show any symptoms. Pseudocysts are most often discovered during imaging testing that is performed for another digestive health condition. If signs and symptoms do occur, they typically include:

  • Feeling a mass in your upper abdomen
  • Persistent abdominal pain that may feel like it is radiating toward your back
  • Vomiting and nausea

Causes and Risk Factors of Pancreas Cysts

The cause for most pancreatic cysts is unknown, but people with certain rare diseases like von Hippel-Lindau disease, a genetic condition that affects the pancreas, may be more likely to develop these cysts.

Pseudocysts usually show up after a bout of pancreatitis, which is a painful digestive health condition in which the pancreas becomes inflamed. In other cases, pseudocysts can happen after traumatic injury to the abdomen. Other risk factors for pancreatic cysts include having gallstones or using alcohol heavily.

Tests and Diagnosis of Pancreas Cysts

In some cases, pancreatic cysts can become cancerous, and this is the main challenge of diagnosis. To search for cancer, your doctor may take a fluid sample from the cyst to check for cancer cells, and a review of your medical history may be conducted. Your doctor may also perform any of the following:

  • CT scan. A CT scan gives the doctor the opportunity to review detailed information about the size and structure of the cyst.
  • Endoscopic ultrasound. This test, like MRI, can provide a detailed image of the cyst. Also, fluid can be collected from the cyst for analysis in a laboratory for possible signs of cancer.
  • MRI scan. An MRI can highlight subtle details of the cyst and help determine whether or not the characteristics suggest a higher risk for cancer.

These tests will help the doctor determine the nature of your cyst – which can fall into one of five categories:

  • Cystic islet tumor
  • Intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasm
  • Mucinous cystadenoma
  • Papillary cystic tumor
  • Serous cystadenoma

Treatment and Care for Pancreas Cysts

The appropriate treatment for a pancreatic cyst depends on the type of cyst, its size and whether it is causing symptoms. The options include:

  • Drainage. A symptomatic, bothersome pseudocyst can be drained. To do this, a small flexible tube, equipped with needle and probe, is passed through your mouth to your stomach and small intestine.
  • Watching and waiting. If a cyst does not bother you and is benign, you can just leave it alone and keep an eye on it. Serous cystadenoma, the most common type, very rarely becomes cancerous.
  • Surgery. A large pseudocyst or one with a high likelihood for developing cancer should be removed through surgery.