What is Acute Pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis is a condition that involves the swelling or inflammation of the pancreas, an organ that produces digestive enzymes and hormones. Pancreatitis may be acute or chronic. Repeated attacks of acute pancreatitis may lead to chronic pancreatitis, and patients with chronic pancreatitis can continue to have acute episodes.

Acute pancreatitis is a non-progressive disease, meaning that it does not worsen over time. It causes sustained pain that lasts hours, days, or up to two weeks.

Chronic pancreatitis is a long-term condition in which the pancreas is not necessarily persistently inflamed, but has been damaged by past inflammation. Chronic pancreatitis causes constant or intermittent pain over the course of years, worsening as time goes on. Learn more.

The two most common causes of acute pancreatitis are alcohol abuse and gallstones. Other conditions that have been linked to pancreatitis include:

  • Autoimmune conditions
  • Blockage of the pancreatic or bile ducts
  • Complications of cystic fibrosis
  • High levels of a fat called triglycerides in the blood (hypertriglyceridemia)
  • Hyperparathyroidism
  • Use of certain medications

If you have acute pancreatitis, our expert clinicians can help get to the root of your pain and offer innovative solutions. Through our Pancreas and Liver Diseases Program, we have treated thousands of patients with acute and chronic pancreatitis.

What are the Symptoms of Acute Pancreatitis?

Symptoms of acute pancreatitis include:

  • Pain in the upper left or middle abdomen, which may:
    • Worsen after eating or drinking
    • Worsen when lying flat on the back
    • Radiate to the back or below the shoulder blades
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Clay-colored stools
  • Bloating
  • Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)

How is Acute Pancreatitis Diagnosed?

Your visit to our Pancreas and Liver Diseases program will begin with a review of your symptoms and medical history. 

Pancreatitis is typically diagnosed with both lab tests and imaging tests such as MRIs, CT scans, CT/PET scans, and ultrasounds. Sometimes, endoscopic imaging tests like an endoscopic ultrasound (EUS) or Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography Procedure (ERCP) are used.

Blood tests and other laboratory tests are sometimes used to reach a diagnosis of pancreatitis.

How is Acute Pancreatitis Treated?

All patients with pancreatitis are advised to avoid smoking, alcohol, and fatty foods. 

Acute pancreatitis often requires hospitalization. Food may be restricted to limit the activity of the pancreas. Treatment may include draining fluid from in or around the pancreas if necessary and removing gallstones or other blockages. 

In severe cases of pancreatitis (called necrotizing pancreatitis), surgery may be needed to remove dead or infected pancreatic tissue. New endoscopic approaches are available now that include less invasive methods. These methods are achieved via EUS and stent placements for drainage of excess inflammatory fluid or dead tissue. A multidisciplinary team of specialists in the Pancreas and Liver Diseases program will collaborate to find the right treatment for you..

Make an appointment

For more information or to schedule an appointment with a pancreatic or biliary disease specialist, call our scheduling line.  

Phone: 202-444-8541


Get answers to commonly asked questions about the Gastroenterology department at MedStar Georgetown.