Acute Pancreatitis

*Please note: This slide set represents a visual interpretation and is not intended to provide, nor substitute as, medical and/or clinical advice.
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 autodigestion.
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 variants. 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 tests for pancreatic enzymes can diagnose acute pancreatitis. The pancreatic enzymes that typically are elevated when patients have acute pancreatitis are called the amylase and lipase.
Diagnosis is usually confirmed by a 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 develop acute pancreatitis are out of the hospital in a few days.
However, about 1 in 10 cases are serious enough to affect other organs like the kidneys and lungs, and may 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 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 to eat a varied and healthy diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables.
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Module Content

The Role and Anatomy of the Pancreas Acute Pancreatitis Chronic Pancreatitis Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI)

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Slide Show - Acute Pancreatitis
This slide show describes the causes, symptoms, and factors in the development of acute pancreatitis, as well as tools and tests used to diagnose the disease.

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Animation - Acute Pancreatitis
This animation describes the causes, symptoms, and factors in the development of acute pancreatitis, as well as tools and tests used to diagnose the disease.
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Expert Video - What is acute pancreatitis and what are its causes and symptoms?
Physicians discuss the causes of acute pancreatitis, including the symptoms and why they are so severe. They also discuss the importance of getting checked if something feels wrong.
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Expert Video - How is acute pancreatitis diagnosed?
Physicians discuss how they diagnose acute pancreatitis, including the symptoms that allude to the ailment and the follow-up tests that confirm the diagnosis.
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Expert Video - What are some of the consequences of acute pancreatitis?
Physicians discuss some of the long-term consequences of repeat attacks and severe acute pancreatitis, including loss of function.
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Expert Video - What is the link between alcohol and acute pancreatitis?
Physicians discuss the role of alcohol in acute pancreatitis, including the amount of alcohol consumption that increases the risk, and whether certain people may be more inclined to develop alcohol-related acute pancreatitis.
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Patient Video - What were your symptoms of acute pancreatitis?
Patients with acute pancreatitis describe the symptoms they experienced that led them to their diagnosis. They also describe the sudden and intense pain that they experienced, and discuss when they realized that their symptoms were serious.
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Patient Video - How was your acute pancreatitis diagnosed?
Patients with acute pancreatitis discuss how their diagnoses were made, including the tests they had to undergo and what they experienced during those tests.
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Patient Video - How do you explain your acute pancreatitis to your family and friends?
Patients with acute pancreatitis talk about their experiences of telling friends and family about their disease. They discuss their struggle with being comfortable enough to discuss the details of their condition. By sharing their stories, they are becoming advocates for the disease.
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Patient Video - Were you symptom free after your first attack of acute pancreatitis?
Patients discuss their experiences following their acute pancreatitis attack.
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This educational activity has been developed by: The National Pancreas Foundation and Mechanisms in Medicine Inc.

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This website is part of the Animated Patient™ series that provides highly visual formats of learning for patients to improve their understanding, make informed decisions, and partner with their health care professionals for optimal outcomes.