Acute pancreatitis is sudden swelling and inflammation of the pancreas.
The pancreas is an organ located behind the stomach that produces chemicals called enzymes, as well as the hormones insulin and glucagon. Most of the time, the enzymes are only active after they reach the small intestine, where they are needed to digest food.
When these enzymes become active inside the pancreas, they digest the tissue of the pancreas. This causes swelling, bleeding (hemorrhage), and damage to the pancreas and its blood vessels. It 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 condition is most often caused by alcoholism and alcohol abuse (70% of cases in the United States; typically requires 5 to 8 drinks per day for 5 or more years). Genetics may be a factor in some cases. Sometimes the cause is not known, however.
Other conditions that have been linked to pancreatitis are:
Autoimmune problems (when the immune system attacks the body)
Blockage of the pancreatic duct or common bile duct, the tubes that drain enzymes from the pancreas, most often due to gallstones
Treatment often requires a stay in the hospital and may involve:
Fluids given through a vein (IV)
Stopping food or fluid by mouth to limit the activity of the pancreas
Occasionally a tube will 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
Forsmark CE, Baillie J. AGA Institute Techical Reviewe on acute pancreatitis. Gastroenterology. 2007;132:2022-2044.
Frossard JL, Steer ML, Pastor CM. Acute pancreatitis. Lancet. 2008;371:143-152.
George F. Longstreth, MD, Department of Gastroenterology, Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program, San Diego, California. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.