Gallstone Pancreatitis

What is gallstone pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis is a disease that causes inflammation and pain in your pancreas. The pancreas is a small organ that produces fluids and enzymes to break down the food you eat. This is part of the digestive process. Sometimes, a gallstone can block your pancreatic duct and cause pancreatitis. This is known as gallstone pancreatitis.

What causes gallstone pancreatitis?

Gallstones form in your gallbladder. But in cases of gallstone pancreatitis, the stone travels from the gallbladder and blocks the opening to the first part of the small intestine (duodenum). This causes a backup of fluid that can travel up both the bile duct and the pancreatic duct. Gallstone pancreatitis can be very painful and life-threatening if not treated.

What are the symptoms of gallstone pancreatitis?

Severe pain is the most common symptom of gallstone pancreatitis, but it is not the only symptom. You might also have: 

  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Jaundice
  • Nausea
  • Pain that feels sharp or a “squeezing” in your left upper abdomen or in your back
  • Pain that radiates from the original site up to the shoulder or chest
  • Vomiting

How is gallstone pancreatitis diagnosed?

Gallstone pancreatitis is diagnosed by using a combination of tools. The most common are blood tests and different types of body scans. Blood tests can identify inflammation in the pancreas. CT scan, MRI, or ultrasound can give a clearer picture of the severity of your pancreatitis. It can also tell whether a gallstone is stuck inside the pancreatic duct and needs to be removed.

How is gallstone pancreatitis treated?

Gallstone pancreatitis usually requires hospitalization. If the inflammation related to your pancreatitis is mild, not eating and drinking for a few days will treat your condition. During this time, healthcare providers may give you fluids through an IV. In cases where you may not be able to eat for a long time, you may fed through a special tube and sometimes into your vein. Healthcare providers will also treat your pain and nausea, if any, with IV medicines. Often this will be enough to get your stone to pass through your body and resolve your pancreatitis.

In more severe cases of gallstone pancreatitis, your surgeon will likely remove your gallstone. This will be done through a surgical procedure or with an endoscope. Depending on your condition, you may need to have your gallstone removed right away. You might be able to wait until after about 48 hours of receiving fluids directly into your vein. This allows your inflammation to ease first. Your healthcare provider may recommend surgical removal of your gallbladder after your pancreatitis has resolved. This will greatly reduce your chances of getting gallstone pancreatitis in the future.

What are the complications of gallstone pancreatitis?

If gallstone pancreatitis goes untreated, the complications can be very serious. Digestive fluids from the liver, gallbladder, and pancreas, may back up into your body and lead to an infection known as cholangitis. You may also develop yellowish eyes and skin which is called jaundice. The tissue of your pancreas itself can even begin to die off in a condition called pancreatic necrosis. Ultimately, gallstone pancreatitis can be fatal if not treated.

How can I prevent gallstone pancreatitis?

It’s not possible to completely prevent gallstone pancreatitis, because it’s not possible to completely prevent gallstones from developing. However, you can take steps to reduce your gallstone risk. Eat a healthy diet, stay at a healthy weight, keep your cholesterol levels within a normal range, and manage diabetes if you have it. If you are taking a medicine that contains estrogen, ask your healthcare provider how this might add to your risk of developing gallstones.

When should I call my health care provider?

Gallstone pancreatitis symptoms, especially severe pain, are clear warning signs. If you have any of the symptoms, get medical help right away.

Key points

  • Gallstone pancreatitis occurs when a gallstone blocks your pancreatic duct causing inflammation and pain in your pancreas.
  • Gallstone pancreatitis causes severe abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, fever, chills, and/or jaundice.
  • If untreated, gallstone pancreatitis can cause serious complications.
  • Gallstone pancreatitis may require hospitalization where you will be treated with IV medicines and fluids.
  • Removal of the gallstone may require surgery or an endoscopic procedure.
  • Eventual removal of your gallbladder may be recommended.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your healthcare provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your healthcare provider gives you.
  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your healthcare provider if you have questions.

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