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Acute Pancreatitis

Acute pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas, a condition that affects about 80,000 Americans annually. The pancreas — a large gland located behind the stomach and close to the upper part of the small intestine — secretes digestive enzymes into the small intestine through a tube called the pancreatic duct. These enzymes help digest the fats, proteins and carbohydrates in food. The pancreas also releases the hormones insulin and glucagon into the bloodstream. These hormones help the body use the glucose it derives from food for energy.

When the pancreas becomes inflamed, the digestive enzymes attack the tissue that produces them. This can lead to tissue damage and bleeding, and cause the pancreas blood cells and blood vessels to swell.

Pancreatitis has two stages — acute and chronic. Chronic pancreatitis is a more persistent condition. Most cases of acute pancreatitis are mild and involve a short hospital stay for the pancreas to recover. Acute pancreatitis occurs suddenly after the pancreas is damaged. In addition, it can be hereditary.

About 20 percent of acute pancreatitis cases are severe. Severe acute pancreatitis can lead to heart, lung or kidney failure, and even death. Some patients may have more than one attack of acute pancreatitis, but typically recover after each one. In the most severe cases, the pancreas and surrounding tissue can die, resulting in shock and sometimes death.

Our Approach to Acute Pancreatitis

UCSF offers state-of-the-art care for a wide range of pancreatic disorders, including acute pancreatitis. Our team includes specialists in gastrointestinal surgery, nursing, nutrition, intensive care, wound care, plastic surgery, pharmacology and infectious diseases. The appropriate specialists for each patient work together to customize a treatment plan.

Treatment for acute pancreatitis depends on the severity of the attack. Patients with mild inflammation are usually hospitalized to receive intravenous fluids and pain medication, as well as antibiotics if there's an infection. Severe cases can be life-threatening and may require surgery. We are experts in the latest minimally invasive techniques and postoperative care. Survival rates for patients treated at our hospital for severe acute pancreatitis are two to three times better than the national average.

Awards & recognition

  • usnews-neurology

    Among the top hospitals in the nation

  • One of the nation's best in gastroenterology & GI surgery

UCSF Health medical specialists have reviewed this information. It is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor or other health care provider. We encourage you to discuss any questions or concerns you may have with your provider.