What is 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 for hours or days.

Chronic pancreatitis is a long-term condition in which the pancreas is not 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.

The most common cause pancreatitis is long-term alcohol abuse. 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

The expert clinicians at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital’s Department of Gastroenterology can help patients with pancreatitis to feel comfortable. Through our Pancreatic and Biliary Disease Program, we have treated thousands of patients with acute and chronic pancreatitis.

What are the Symptoms of Pancreatitis?

Symptoms of both acute and chronic 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
  • Weight loss
  • Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)

How is Pancreatitis Diagnosed?

Your visit 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. Endoscopic procedures rely upon the use of a long, thin tube (endoscope) inserted through the mouth and down into the digestive system.

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

How is Pancreatitis Treated?

All patients with pancreatitis are advised to avoid smoking, alcohol, and fatty foods. Treatment of chronic pancreatitis may also include enzyme supplements and pain medication.

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 and removing gallstones or other blockages.

In severe cases of 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 dead tissues.

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.