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Chronic Pancreatitis Testing and Diagnosis

Chronic pancreatitis is best diagnosed with tests that can evaluate the structure of the pancreas via radiography (x-ray exams)—blood tests are generally not helpful for making the diagnosis of chronic pancreatitis. As with acute pancreatitis, a doctor will conduct a thorough medical history and physical examination. Physicians have a variety of diagnostic tests to choose from:

Transabdominal ultrasound

Sound waves are sent toward the pancreas via a handheld device that a technician glides over the abdomen. The sound waves bounce off the pancreas, gallbladder, liver, and other organs, and their echoes generate electrical impulses that create an image—called a sonogram—on a video monitor. If gallstones are causing inflammation, the sound waves will also bounce off of them, showing their location.

Endoscopic ultrasound

After spraying a solution to numb the patient’s throat, the doctor inserts an endoscope—a thin, flexible, lighted tube—down the throat, through the stomach, and into the small intestine. They then turn on an ultrasound attachment to the endoscope, which produces sound waves to create visual images of the pancreas and bile ducts. To read more about endoscopic ultrasounds, please click here.

Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP)

MRCP uses magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a noninvasive procedure that produces cross-section images of parts of the body. After being lightly sedated, the patient lies in a cylinder-like tube. The technician injects dye into the patient’s veins, which helps show the pancreas, gallbladder, and pancreatic and bile ducts.

Computerized tomography (CT)

A CT scan is a noninvasive radiograph (x-ray) that produces 3-dimensional images of parts of the body. The patient lies on a table that slides into a donut-shaped machine. The test can show gallstones and the extent of damage to the pancreas.

Occasionally, blood tests, such as a test for IgG4 to assess for autoimmune pancreatitis, can be used to help diagnose the cause of chronic pancreatitis. However, blood tests are not typically used to make the diagnosis of chronic pancreatitis.