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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 makes hormones such as insulin. This helps control blood sugar. It also makes enzymes that help digest and break down the foods you eat. This is part of the digestive process. Sometimes a gallstone gets stuck in the common bile duct. This can block your pancreatic duct and cause pancreatitis. This is known as gallstone pancreatitis.

What causes gallstone pancreatitis?

Gallstones form in your gallbladder. In cases of gallstone pancreatitis, the stone leaves the gallbladder. It blocks the opening from the pancreas 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. Gallstones are the leading cause of short-term (acute) pancreatitis.

What are the symptoms of gallstone pancreatitis?

Severe pain is the most common symptom of gallstone pancreatitis. But it's not the only symptom. You might also have: 

  • Chills

  • Fever

  • Yellow color to the eyes, skin, or both (jaundice)

  • Nausea

  • Pain that feels sharp or a “squeezing” in your center or left upper belly (abdomen) or in your back

  • Pain that travels 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 find inflammation in the pancreas. A CT scan, MRI scan, or ultrasound can give a clearer picture of how severe the pancreatitis is. It can also tell if a gallstone is stuck inside the pancreatic duct and needs to be removed.

How is gallstone pancreatitis treated?

Gallstone pancreatitis usually needs to be treated in the hospital. During this time, healthcare providers will give you fluids through an IV (intravenous) line. In cases where you may not be able to eat for a long time, you may be fed through a special tube and sometimes into your vein. Healthcare providers will also treat any pain and nausea with IV medicines. Often this will be enough to get your stone to pass through your body and ease the pancreatitis.

In more severe cases, your surgeon will likely remove the gallstone. This will be done through surgery or with a special tool (endoscope) during a procedure called ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography). 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 getting fluids directly into your vein. This allows your inflammation to ease first. Your healthcare provider may advise that your gallbladder also be removed. This will be done after your pancreatitis has eased. Sometimes it's done in the hospital during the same stay. This will greatly reduce your chances of getting gallstone pancreatitis in the future.

What are possible 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. This can cause an infection called cholangitis. You may also develop yellowish eyes and skin (jaundice). The tissue of your pancreas itself can even begin to die in a condition called pancreatic necrosis. Gallstone pancreatitis can be fatal if not treated.

How can I prevent gallstone pancreatitis?

It’s not possible to fully prevent gallstone pancreatitis. This is because it may not be possible to fully prevent gallstones from forming. You can take steps to reduce your gallstone risk by eating a healthy diet, staying at a healthy weight, keeping your cholesterol levels within a normal range, and managing 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. Once you have had gallstone pancreatitis, it is important to have your gallbladder removed to keep this condition from coming back.

When should I call my healthcare 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 about gallstone pancreatitis

  • Gallstone pancreatitis occurs when a gallstone blocks your pancreatic duct, causing inflammation and pain in your pancreas.

  • Gallstone pancreatitis causes severe belly pain, nausea, vomiting, fever, chills, and jaundice.

  • If untreated, gallstone pancreatitis can cause serious complications.

  • Gallstone pancreatitis will usually need to be treated in the hospital.

  • You may need surgery or an endoscopic procedure (ERCP) to remove the gallstone.

  • You may need to have your gallbladder removed to reduce your risk of further problems.

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.

Online Medical Reviewer: Jen Lehrer MD
Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Turley Jr PA-C
Date Last Reviewed: 7/1/2023
© 2000-2024 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.