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Diagnostic Tests Of Acute Pancreatitis

Diagnostic tests of acute pancreatitis are not easy to do, as blood tests alone will not accurately assess the exact state of a patient. A severe case of acute pancreatitis belongs into the hands of the best specialists. In a university setting this would be a team with a gastroenterologist, general surgeon and likely a cardiologist, all in the ICU setting.

Depending on the type of complications other specialists may have to be called in depending on what organ system is affected. For instance, if sepsis is a problem (as it often will), then a specialist for infectious diseases would be brought in. In a smaller hospital there might be only a surgeon and an internist available. Here are the common tests that are done: A complete blood count, serum lipase and amylase as well as phospholipase A2, if available.

This latter enzyme is responsible for lung tissue damage, if it finds its way into the blood stream. With serum amylase the lab can now do subtypes p and s, which stands for pancreatic and salivary. Only the pancreatic amylase is important in acute pancreatitis.

However, the height of the serum p-type amylase still will not predict the outcome in a particular patient, but it can be useful to monitor the recovery. Another test that is done is an arterial blood gas to see whether the oxygen tension in the blood is low (this would be indicative of lung damage). Liver enzymes, creatinine levels to check kidney function as well as serum calcium are just some of the initial blood tests that are done. As the patient is being monitored there will be other tests that would come up depending on the clinical situation that will need to be done.

CT scan of the pancreas

A CT scan of the pancreas and abdomen has some merit as the authors in Ref. 6 describe. They developed a CT severity index, which goes from 0 to 10 and accurately predicted the clinical outcome. The authors used this CT severity index as a parameter to predict accurately the length of hospital stay, need for necrosectomy (surgical removal of necrotic tissue) and the mortality rate in severe acute pancreatitis cases.

They concluded that an early CT scan shortly after hospital admission is mandatory in the work up of the patient. In the case of a gall stone in the bile ducts, ultrasound examination can give useful information to determine whether or not the common bile duct is dilated. If this is the case, a gastroenterologist trained in endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) should be called in. You may rightly ask what this unspeakable doctor lingo means.

Endoscopic test

Here is the solution to this puzzle: the gastroenterologist is a specialist for stomach and digestive tract diseases.” Endoscopic” means using the same procedure as for stomach and duodenal ulcers with the help of a fiberoptic instrument through which the specialist can see exactly what is going on. Finally, if we spell cholangiopancreatography like that, it becomes clear that this means “bile duct”-“pancreas duct”-“picture”. So, what’s going on is that the specialist works with a special side-viewing endoscope and advances this through the sphincter of Oddi in the duodenum, which is the opening of the common bile duct/pancreatic duct.



At this point the specialist introduces another tube (=a telescopic cannula) and injects a contrast material into it. X-rays will then show exactly how the bile duct and the pancreatic duct systems look and whether or not a gall stone or a pancreatic stone is present.

Furthermore, minor surgical procedures can be performed to dilate the sphincter of Oddi (cutting of the sphincter or “spincterotomy”), to extract a stone with a mini forceps or to place a stent, which is a little plastic tube, to allow drainage of bile and pancreatic juice in case of a chronic stricture of the opening. This is a fairly harmless procedure and many patients have had remarkable recoveries once their problems had been identified and solved. In the hands of the specialist there are some other sophisticated tests available including an MRI scan, if this is necessary.


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More references

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Last modified: September 1, 2018

This outline is only a teaching aid to patients and should stimulate you to ask the right questions when seeing your doctor. However, the responsibility of treatment stays in the hands of your doctor and you.