Acute pancreatitis is sudden swelling and inflammation of the pancreas.
The pancreas is an organ located behind the stomach that produces chemicals called enzymes, which are needed to digest food. It also produces the hormones insulin and glucagon. Most of the time, the enzymes are only active after they reach the small intestine.
When these enzymes become active inside the pancreas, they digest the tissue of the pancreas. This causes swelling, bleeding (hemorrhage), and damage to the organ and its blood vessels. This condition is called acute pancreatitis.
Acute pancreatitis affects men more often than women. Certain diseases, surgeries, and habits make you more likely to develop this condition. The two most common causes of pancreatitis in the United States are heavy alcohol use and gallstones.
Alcohol use is responsible for up to 70% of cases in the United States. Acute pancreatitis typically requires 5 to 8 drinks per day for 5 or more years. Gallstones are the next most common cause. The condition develops when the gallstones travel out of the gallbladder into the bile ducts, where they block the opening that drains the common bile duct and pancreatic duct (ampulla). Genetics may be a factor in some cases. Sometimes, the cause is not known.
Other conditions that have been linked to pancreatitis are:
Autoimmune problems (when the immune system attacks the body)
Treatment often requires a stay in the hospital. It may involve:
Fluids given through a vein (IV)
Stopping food or fluid by mouth to limit the activity of the pancreas
A tube may be inserted through the nose or mouth to remove the contents of the stomach (nasogastric suctioning). This may be done if vomiting and severe pain do not improve, or if a paralyzed bowel (paralytic ileus) develops. The tube will stay in for 1 - 2 days to 1 - 2 weeks.
Treating the condition that caused the problem can prevent repeated attacks.
In some cases, therapy is needed to:
Drain fluid that has collected in or around the pancreas
Tenner S, Baillie J, DeWitt J, et al. American College of Gastroenterology Guideline: Management of Acute Pancreatitis. Am J Gastroenterol. 2013;108:1400-15. PMID: 23896955 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23896955.
Todd Eisner, MD, in private practice specializing in gastroenterology, Boca Raton, FL. Affiliate Assistant Professor, Florida Atlantic University School of Medicine. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.