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  • Gallstone disease and alcohol are the most common causes of acute pancreatitis; other causes include hypertriglyceridemia, drugs, and specific disorders of the biliary tree and pancreas.
  • Diagnosis is usually made based on a history of acute abdominal pain; a threefold elevation in serum amylase or lipase, or both; or an abnormal abdominal computed tomography (CT) scan showing changes of acute pancreatitis.
  • Severe acute pancreatitis is characterized by persistent (>48 hours) organ failure (systemic blood pressure <90 mm Hg, PaO2 <60 mm Hg, creatinine >2.0 mg/dL) or pancreatic necrosis.
  • Diagnosis of necrotizing pancreatitis is confirmed by contrast-enhanced abdominal CT scan.

Acute pancreatitis is an acute inflammatory disorder of the pancreas that involves the pancreas and peri-pancreatic tissues but can sometimes affect other organ systems. The initial evaluation of patients with acute pancreatitis involves determining the cause and assessing the severity of disease since this guides subsequent management.


Acute pancreatitis is the third most common inpatient gastrointestinal diagnosis in the United States. There were 243,332 hospitalizations in 2002 for acute pancreatitis with a median length of stay of 4 days and median charges amounting to $11,402. The incidence rate of acute pancreatitis appears to be increasing without any changes in the short-term or long-term case fatality rates.

Causes and Risk Factors

The most common causes of acute pancreatitis in the United States are gallstones and alcohol abuse, accounting for 70–80% of cases. Table 25–1 lists other causes, including hypertriglyceridemia, drug reactions, iatrogenic causes (eg, postsurgical or endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography [ERCP]), hereditary factors, and idiopathic causes.

Table 25–1. Causes of Acute Pancreatitis.

The first attack of alcohol-induced acute pancreatitis typically occurs after many (eg, 8–10) years of heavy alcohol consumption, and recurrent episodes can be anticipated if alcohol abuse continues. Gallstone-induced pancreatitis occurs in the setting of choledocholithiasis and is believed to be related to transient or complete obstruction of pancreatic ductal flow or reflux of bile into the pancreatic duct. Hypertriglyceridemia associated acute pancreatitis does not typically occur unless the triglyceride level exceeds 1000 mg/dL and is often seen in patients with type I and V hyperlipidemia as well as in alcoholics. Because triglyceride levels fall ...

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