Acute Pancreatitis Causes and Symptoms

Cause and Burden of Acute Pancreatitis

The most common cause of acute pancreatitis is stones in the gallbladder. Gallstones pass through the common bile duct to enter the small intestine. At the entry of the small intestine, the main pancreatic duct joins or lies immediately next to the common bile duct. It is believed that stones that get stuck in the common bile duct impinge on the main pancreatic duct, causing an obstruction of the normal flow of pancreatic fluid and leading to pancreatic injury. Another way that a stone can cause pancreatitis is by causing a backflow of bile into the pancreatic duct, resulting in pancreatic injury. Whereas the actual mechanism of how gallstones cause pancreatitis is not entirely certain, the association of gallstones and pancreatitis is clear.

There are several other causes of acute pancreatitis including:

  • High triglyceride levels in the blood (possibly Familial Chylomicronemia Syndrome)
  • Ingested medicines
  • High triglyceride levels in the blood
  • High calcium levels in the blood
  • Heavy alcohol consumption

Each year, there are more than 300,000 admissions to the hospital for treatment of acute pancreatitis, and the estimated cost of these admissions is greater than $2 billion. Between 16.5% and 25% of patients who develop acute pancreatitis experience a recurrent episode within the first several years. Preventing a recurrence is a major goal of treatment, with efforts focused on identifying the underlying cause and triggers to prevent future episodes.

Symptoms of Acute Pancreatitis

Acute pancreatitis usually begins with gradual or sudden pain in the upper abdomen that sometimes extends to the back. The pain may be mild at first and become worse after eating. The pain is often severe, constant, and commonly lasts for several days in the absence of treatment. A person with acute pancreatitis usually looks and feels very ill and needs immediate medical attention. Most cases require hospitalization for 3 to 5 days for close monitoring, pain control, and intravenous hydration. Other symptoms can include:

  • Swollen and tender abdomen
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fever
  • Rapid pulse