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General Medical Questions
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Question : What causes an inflamed pancreas?
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The Trusted Source
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Howard LeWine, M.D.

Howard LeWine, M.D., is chief editor of Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications. He is a clinical instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital. Dr. LeWine has been a primary care internist and teacher of internal medicine since 1978.

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April 03, 2014
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An inflamed pancreas is called pancreatitis. It almost always leads to upper abdominal pain. Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting and loss of appetite.

Doctors group pancreatitis in two major categories:

  1. Acute. Inflammation of the pancreas comes on rather quickly, within several hours to a couple days.
  2. Chronic. Persistent inflammation of the pancreas.

By far, the two most common cause of pancreatitis are:

  • Alcohol
  • Gallstones

Less common causes include:

  • Trauma, such as a car accident or fall with a direct hit to the upper abdomen
  • Medications
  • An autoimmune reaction (the immune system mistakenly attacks the pancreas)
  • A complication of a medical procedure called ERCP (enterohepatic cholangiopancreatography) or abdominal surgery
  • An abnormal pancreatic duct
  • A very high triglyceride blood level

Sometimes an abnormal blood test can lead a doctor to suspect that the pancreas is inflamed. An inflamed pancreas usually excretes extra enzymes (called amylase and lipase) into the bloodstream.

There are reasons besides pancreatitis for the blood level of these enzymes to be higher than normal. If your enzymes are higher than normal — but you don't have any symptoms of pancreatitis — ask your doctor what else might be causing your high amylase or lipase levels.

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