Revision 93 for 'Acute pancreatitis'

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Acute pancreatitis

Acute pancreatitis refers to acute inflammation of the pancreas and is a potentially life threatening condition. Imaging is often required to not only confirm the diagnosis but also to guide treatment.


The demographics of patients affected by acute pancreatitis reflects the underlying cause. Causes include:

Clinical presentation

Acute pancreatitis is generally diagnosed clinically. Classical features include 3:

  • gradual development of severe central epigastric pain (over 30-60 min)
  • poorly localized tenderness and pain
  • exacerbated by supine positioning
  • radiates through to the back in 50% of patients

Elevation of amylase and lipase are 90-95% specific for the diagnosis 3.

Signs of hemorrhage include:


There continues to be debate over the precipitating factor leading to acute pancreatitis, with duct occlusion being an important factor, but neither necessary nor sufficient.

Mechanism not withstanding, activation of pancreatic enzymes within the pancreas rather than the bowel lead to inflammation of the pancreatic tissue, disruption of small pancreatic ducts and in leakage of pancreatic secretions. Because the pancreas lacks a capsule, the pancreatic juices have ready access to surrounding tissues. Pancreatic enzymes digest fascial layers, spreading the inflammatory process to multiple anatomic compartments.

  • pancreatic fluid collections (are defined by presence or absence of necrosis)
    • necrosis absent
      • acute peripancreatic fluid collections (APFCs) (in the first 4 weeks),
      • pseudocysts (encapsulated fluid collections after 4 weeks),
    • necrosis present
      • acute necrotic collections (ANCs) in first 4 weeks),
      • walled-off necrosis (WON): encapsulated
        collections after 4 weeks).
  • pseudocyst formation
    • a round or oval, encapsulated pancreatic fluid collection encased by a distinct fibrous capsule
    • requires at least 4 weeks to develop
    • about 50% will spontaneously resolve, whereas the remainder will require catheter or surgical drainage.
  • liquefactive necrosis of pancreatic parenchyma
    • morbidity and mortality increase dramatically when necrosis is present
    • may become secondarily infected (emphysematous pancreatitis)
  • abscess: peripancreatic abscess
  • vascular complications
    • hemorrhage: resulting from erosion of blood vessels and tissue necrosis
    • pseudoaneurysm: autodigestion of arterial walls by pancreatic enzymes results in pulsatile mass that is lined by fibrous tissue and maintains communication with parent artery
    • splenic vein thrombosis
    • portal vein thrombosis
  • fistula formation with pancreatic ascites: leakage of pancreatic secretions into peritoneal cavity

Radiographic features

Role of imaging is either to clarify the diagnosis when the clinical picture is confusing, to assess severity (Balthazar score), to determine prognosis, or to detect complications.

Imaging studies of acute pancreatitis may be normal in mild cases. Contrast-enhanced CT provides the most comprehensive initial assessment, typically with a dual phase (arterial and portal venous) protocol. However, US is useful for follow-up of specific abnormalities, such as fluid collections and pseudocysts.


Abnormalities that may be seen in the pancreas include:

  • typical findings
    • focal or diffuse parenchymal enlargement
    • changes in density because of edema
    • indistinctness of the margins of the gland owing to inflammation
    • surrounding retroperitoneal stranding
  • liquefactive necrosis of pancreatic parenchyma
    • lack of parenchymal enhancement
    • often multifocal
  • infected necrosis
    • difficult to distinguish from aseptic liquefactive necrosis
    • presence of gas is helpful
    • FNA helpful
  • abscess formation
    • circumscribed fluid collection
    • little or no necrotic tissues (thus distinguishing it from infected necrosis)
  • hemorrhage
    • high-attenuation fluid in the retroperitoneum or peripancreatic tissues

Contrast-enhanced MR is equivalent to CT in the assessment of pancreatitis.


May be used to monitor patient's progress:

  • diagnosis of vascular complications, i.e. thrombosis
  • identify gallstones
  • hypoechoic lesions may indicate necrotic change

Treatment and prognosis

Prognosis for acute pancreatitis varies according to severity. Overall mortality is 5-10% per attack 3. Ranson's criteria are useful in prognosticating.

The newly revised Atlanta classification system makes the scene for a new international classification system, trying to uniform reporting for both clinical practice and research 8.

Treatment is largely supportive, often requiring ICU care in severe cases for respiratory and cardiovascular support and careful management of glucose, calcium and fluid balance.

Ultrasound or CT directed aspiration biopsy may be needed to confirm the presence of pancreatic abscess. Image-directed catheter placement is an alternative to surgical drainage of pancreatic fluid collections.

Differential diagnosis

General imaging differential considerations include:


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