Acute Pancreatitis: the pancreas is a gland located behind the stomach which secretes potent digestive juices or enzymes into the small intestine to aid the digestion of carbohydrates, proteins, and fat. It also releases the hormones insulin and glucagon into the bloodstream; which are involved in blood glucose metabolism, regulating how the body stores and uses 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 (pancreatitis), 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. Both forms of pancreatitis occur more often in men than women.
Acute pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas that occurs suddenly and usually resolves in a few days with treatment. Acute pancreatitis can be a life-threatening illness with severe complications. The most common cause of acute pancreatitis is the presence of gallstones – small, pebble-like substances made of hardened bile – that cause inflammation in the pancreas as they pass through the common bile duct obstructing the pancreatic duct. Chronic, heavy alcohol use is also a common cause. Acute pancreatitis can occur within hours or as long as 2 days after consuming alcohol. Other causes of acute pancreatitis include abdominal trauma, medications, infections, tumors, and genetic abnormalities of the pancreas.
Signs and symptoms of pancreatitis may vary, depending on which type you experience.
Acute pancreatitis signs and symptoms include:
Chronic pancreatitis signs and symptoms include:
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:
Treatment for pancreatitis usually requires hospitalization. Once your condition is stabilized in the hospital and inflammation in the pancreas is controlled, doctors can treat the underlying cause of your pancreatitis so if you’re experiencing pancreatitis, your doctor may admit you to the hospital for care.
Initial treatments to help control the inflammation in your pancreas and make you more comfortable may include:
How long you stay in the hospital will depend on your situation. Some people recover quickly and others develop complications that require a longer hospitalization.
Once your pancreatitis is brought under control, your health care team can treat the underlying cause of your pancreatitis. Treatment will depend on the cause of your pancreatitis, but examples of treatment may include:
What is acute pancreatitis? Acute pancreatitis describes a sudden inflammation of the pancreas, which can lead to a variety of severe complications. This video discusses the pathophysiology, signs and symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of acute pancreatitis.
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First Aid 2016
Script/Visuals: Vincent Waldman, PhD
Audio: Tanner Marshall, MS
Reviewer: Rishi Desai, MD, MPH