Diagnosing acute pancreatitis 

Most cases of acute pancreatitis are diagnosed in hospital because of the risk of serious complications.

The doctor in charge of your care will ask you about the history of your symptoms. They may also carry out a physical examination. If you have acute pancreatitis, certain areas of your abdomen will be very tender to touch.

A blood test will be carried out to help confirm a diagnosis. This can detect signs of acute pancreatitis, such as a high level of two chemicals called lipase and amylase.

At first, it can be difficult to tell whether your acute pancreatitis is mild or severe. You'll be monitored closely for signs of serious problems, such as organ failure.

People with mild acute pancreatitis tend to improve within a week and experience either no further problems or problems that resolve within 48 hours. People with severe acute pancreatitis develop persistent serious problems.

Further testing

Several tests may be used to help determine the severity of your condition and assess your risk of developing more serious complications.

You may have any of the following tests:

  • a computerised tomography (CT) scan  where a series of X-rays are taken to build up a more detailed, three-dimensional image of your pancreas
  • magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan  where strong magnetic fields and radio waves are used to produce a detailed image of the inside of your body
  • an ultrasound scan  where high-frequency sound waves are used to create an image of part of the inside of the body
  • endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP)

An ERCP uses a narrow, flexible tube known as an endoscope, which has a camera on one end. The endoscope will be passed through your mouth and towards your stomach. A special dye that shows up on X-rays is then injected through the endoscope into your bile and pancreatic ducts. After the dye has been injected, X-rays will be taken.

This test can be useful in cases of gallbladder-associated acute pancreatitis, because it can pinpoint exactly where the gallstone is located. In some cases, it may be possible to pass surgical instruments down the endoscope, so the gallstone can be removed.

Page last reviewed: 02/03/2015

Next review due: 02/03/2017