Pancreatitis is essentially inflammation of the pancreas. The condition is diagnosed based on certain criteria.
Specifically, at least two of the following must be met:
- Presence of the characteristic abdominal pain
- Elevated blood amylase or lipase
- Abdominal ultrasound scan that reveals a gallstone or alcoholic fatty liver
- A computed tomography (CT) scan that shows characteristics of the condition
Several laboratory tests and imaging studies are performed in order to diagnose pancreatitis. Some of these include:
The serum levels of amylase and lipase are checked. These enzymes are secreted by the pancreas to digest proteins and lipids present in food. Often, one or both are elevated in cases of pancreatitis.
Imaging studies such as ultrasound imaging and computed tomography (CT) scans of the abdomen are performed. These may reveal fatty alcoholic liver disease or gallstones, two major causes of pancreatitis.
Other imaging techniques include endoscopic ultrasonography and magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP). Endoscopic ultrasonography involves insertion of a thin, flexible endoscope through the mouth and into the stomach. An ultrasound probe at the tip of the endoscope is used to take pictures of the pancreas. In MRCP, an intravenous contrast agent is injected to highlight the pancreas, gall bladder and biliary tree on magnetic resonance imaging.
In cases of chronic pancreatitis, pancreatic cancer may be suspected. This can be checked by taking a small tissue sample or biopsy from the diseased pancreas, which is then examined under the microscope for the presence of cancer cells.
Reviewed by Sally Robertson, BSc