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Acute Pancreatitis


The pancreas is a long, flat, pear-shaped organ that sits behind the stomach. It makes enzymes that help to break down food for use by the body. The enzymes pass from the pancreas through a duct to the small intestine.

Acute pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas. This type occurs suddenly.

The Pancreas

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Causes    TOP

Pancreatitis may be caused by many conditions such as:

  • Blockage of the ducts from:
    • Gallstones
    • Cancer growth
    • Diseases of the small intestine
  • Alcohol
  • Surgery or trauma to the pancreas
  • Certain medications, such as those that treat cancer
  • Poor blood flow to the pancreas
  • Complications of endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) —procedure to treat or diagnose problems of the pancreas

The inflammation can turn on the enzymes in the pancreas. The enzymes then begin to damage the inside of the pancreas.

Risk Factors    TOP

Any of the following may increase the risk of acute pancreatitis:

Symptoms    TOP

Symptoms may include:

  • Severe pain in the center of the upper abdomen:
    • Pain may spread into the upper back
    • Pain is often made worse by eating, walking, or lying down on your back
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Low grade fever
  • Bloating
  • Yellowish color of the skin or whites of the eyes—jaundice
  • Rarely, shock—a medical emergency in which the organs and tissues do not get enough blood or fluids

Untreated acute pancreatitis may progress into chronic pancreatitis. This is a more serious condition that can lead to permanent damage of the pancreas.

Diagnosis    TOP

You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Your doctor may ask about your alcohol use. You will also be asked about any medicine you take.

Blood tests will help to make the diagnosis. Certain enzymes will be much higher in the blood with acute pancreatitis.

The doctor may also need to take images of the pancreas. The images can show changes to the pancreas. Some causes like gallstones, or duct blockages may also be seen. Images may be taken with:

The doctor will use information from all of the tests to make a diagnosis.

Treatment    TOP

Treatment will depend on the severity of the attack and what is causing it. For example, if medicine is the cause, your doctor may just change the medicine or the dose.

Acute pancreatitis will often pass in a few days with proper care. Most will have no lasting damage. Treatment includes:


Medical care will let your pancreas rest. It can also help to manage symptoms. Some concerns include:

  • The pancreas needs to rest. You will not be able to eat or drink.
    • Nutrition and fluids will be given through IV.
    • A special liquid may be needed. It will provide better nutrition for those who need longer rests. It is passed down a tube that is inserted in your nose down to your stomach.
  • Medicine may be needed to help manage symptoms. They can help balance enzymes or insulin.
  • The cause of pancreatitis may need treatment. This will be done while you are in the hospital.

Most will only need to be in the hospital for a few days.


Surgery may be needed if you do not respond to rest. It may also be needed to treat the cause.

Surgical options depend on the cause of pancreatitis, but may include:

  • Percutaneous catheter drainage—fluid is drained from the pancreas. Thin tubes are passed through the skin into the belly.
  • ERCP—to remove gallstones. Can also open any collapsed ducts.
  • Cholecystectomy—to remove the gallbladder. May be needed if gallstones were the cause. This will also reduce your chance of getting acute pancreatitis again.
  • Necrosectomy—remove dying or dead tissue from the pancreas.

Prevention    TOP

Pancreatitis may happen again. To help reduce your chances of acute pancreatitis:

  • Limit intake of alcohol. This is 2 drinks a day or less for men and 1 drink a day or less for women.
  • If you have high cholesterol, restrict your intake of fat. Follow your doctor’s treatment plan.
  • Eat more vegetables.
  • Increase your activity level. Aim for 30 minutes of moderate exercise per day on most days of the week.
  • Make sure your vaccinations are up to date. This includes mumps, rubella hepatitis B, and chickenpox.
  • If you smoke, talk to your doctor about ways to quit. Smoking can irritate the pancreas.
  • Avoid fatty meals. High amounts of fat intake put extra stress on the pancreas.


National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
National Pancreas Foundation


Canadian Association of Gastroenterology


Acute pancreatitis. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: Updated June 5, 2017. Accessed December 21, 2017.
Acute pancreatitis. Tulane University School of Medicine website. Available at: Accessed December 21, 2017.
Causes of acute pancreatitis. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.... Updated May 26, 2016. Accessed December 21, 2017.
Pancreatitis. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website. Available at: Accessed December 21, 2017.
Prevention of acute pancreatitis. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.... Updated November 28, 2016. Accessed December 21, 2017.
4/7/2014 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillance Baker ME, Nelson RC, et al. ACR Appropriateness Criteria for acute pancreatitis. Available at: Updated 2013.
8/28/2014 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillance Johnson CD, Besselink MG, Carter R. Acute pancreatitis. BMJ. 2014;349:g4859.
Last reviewed December 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
Last Updated: 3/7/2017

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