Acute pancreatitis is the sudden inflammation of the pancreas. It can be very painful and usually means a stay in the hospital. About 5% of cases are life-threatening, usually when other organs are involved. The pancreas is a digestive system organ that has two important functions. It produces enzymes to break down food in the digestive tract, as well as hormones that regulate blood sugar. In acute pancreatitis the enzymes used to break down food become activated before they leave the pancreas. These enzymes are so powerful that they start to attack and digest the pancreatic tissue. This process is called auto digestion.
The most common causes of acute pancreatitis are heavy alcohol use and gallstones. Other less common causes include abdominal trauma, medications, infections, tumors and genetic or anatomical variance. High triglycerides or high levels of calcium in the blood are also linked to acute pancreatitis. In some rare cases the cause is never discovered.
Attacks of acute pancreatitis are usually sudden and characterized by intense pain in the center of the upper abdomen, between the belly button and the chest. The pain radiates to the back. Sometimes the pain can be on the left or right side or even lower down in the belly. Most people also have nausea and vomiting, and in some cases fever.
Blood test for pancreatic enzymes and diagnosed acute pancreatitis. The pancreatic enzymes that are typically elevated when patients have acute pancreatitis are called amylase and lipase. Diagnosis is usually confirmed via CT scan. On occasion MRI or ultrasound may be used. The radiologist will look to see if the pancreas is swollen or if there is abnormal fluid around it.
Most people who develope acute pancreatitis are out of the hospital in a few days. However about one in 10 cases are serious enough to affect other organs like the kidneys and lungs and they require a longer stay in the hospital. Sometimes patients have to be treated in the intensive care unit.
In very severe cases, surgery may be required to remove inflamed parts of the pancreas. If the cause of acute pancreatitis was related to gallstones the gallbladder is removed surgically as well in some patients the pancreas becomes so damaged that it no longer functions properly to make digestive enzymes. This is called old pancreatic insufficiency.
Following an episode of acute pancreatitis patients are advised to avoid alcohol and tobacco consumption, high fat foods and triglycerides, and medications that can put stress on the pancreas. As well patients are encouraged to stay well hydrated and doing a very good healthy diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables.