Gallstone pancreatitis: causes, symptoms, treatment, prevention

Gallstone pancreatitis occurs when gallstones grow in your gallbladder and block the duct that leads through your pancreas to your small intestine. Gallstones develop from hardened lumps of digestive fluid.

In general, pancreatitis is a condition involving inflammation of the pancreas. It can be acute or chronic. Acute pancreatitis develops rapidly and usually resolves in several days with appropriate treatment. Chronic pancreatitis develops slowly over time from continuous tissue damage.

Gallstone pancreatitis, also known as biliary pancreatitis, is the most common cause of acute pancreatitis. In the United States, approximately 200,000 hospital admissions occur every year due to acute pancreatitis. Gallstone pancreatitis accounts for approximately 35% to 40% of cases.

Read on to learn more about gallstone pancreatitis, including symptoms, causes, and treatment options.

Gallstone pancreatitis can cause symptoms such as:

Biliary obstruction often causes more acute pain than other causes of acute pancreatitis. According to the American College of Gastroenterology, this is a squeezing-like pain, most often in the upper left part of the abdomen or back. It usually reaches its maximum intensity in 30 minutes and persists for more than 24 hours at a fairly constant intensity.


It is important to seek immediate medical attention if you experience symptoms of acute pancreatitis, as there is a risk of life-threatening complications, such as multiple organ failure or severe damage to the pancreas.

Gallstones cause gallstone pancreatitis by getting stuck in the duct that connects the gallbladder to the small intestine via the pancreas. This blockage causes enzymes to back up in your pancreas, leading to damage and inflammation of your pancreas.

The risk of developing gallstone pancreatitis appears to be higher in people with gallstones under the age of 5 millimeters in diameter. These stones are small enough to enter your gallbladder ducts, but may not be large enough to pass through. In very rare In some cases, gallstones can be larger than 5 centimeters, or about 2 inches in diameter.

What causes gallstones?

According to research, the risk of gallstone pancreatitis in people with gallstones is seven%.

Gallstones form when the bile inside your gallbladder contains too much cholesterolbilirubin or bile salt deficiency.

Researchers don’t know exactly why these changes occur. Gallstone pancreatitis and, by extension, gallstones may be more likely to occur in:

  • females
  • older people
  • people with more weight
  • people with high cholesterol
  • those taking oral contraceptives or hormone replacement pills
  • people experiencing rapid weight loss
  • people with diabetes
  • pregnant women

Doctors often diagnose gallstone pancreatitis with a combination of results from your medical history, physical exam, imaging, and blood tests.

people need to meet two of the following three criteria for a diagnosis of acute pancreatitis:

  • abdominal or upper back pain consistent with pancreatic pain
  • increased levels of lipase or amylase (digestive enzymes) more than three times the upper limit of typical levels
  • abdominal imaging showing pancreatic inflammation

Imaging can show doctors the extent of inflammation and the severity of pancreatitis. Imaging techniques include:

Doctors often use ultrasound as the initial imaging test. It can correctly identify gallstone pancreatitis on 84% time.

Your doctor may order blood tests check:

Early treatment is important for acute pancreatitis. It’s a good idea to receive treatment for gallstone pancreatitis in a hospital to minimize the risk of complications and to have a doctor assess the extent of the inflammation.

To the hospitalyou can receive:

  • intravenous (IV) fluids to treat dehydration if you are vomiting and cannot keep fluids down
  • oral or intravenous pain relievers and antibiotics if you have an infection
  • a low-fat diet or intravenous nutrition

You may need a procedure called endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography. During this procedure, doctors use an X-ray to guide a long, thin tube down your throat to remove gallstones.

Gallbladder removal

Your doctor may recommend a procedure called a cholecystectomy to remove your gallbladder once symptoms of inflammation have subsided.

Experts recommend removal of the gallbladder after mild gallstone pancreatitis to avoid the risk of future gallbladder problems.

However, there is some debate about when to remove the gallbladder. In a 2022 study, researchers found that the optimal time for gallbladder removal was within 8 weeks of discharge from hospital for biliary pancreatitis with necrosis (a loss of blood supply that causes death of part of the pancreas).

Most people with acute pancreatitis have mild disease, but 15% to 20% cases are serious. Around 20% to 30% severe cases lead to death. Severe pancreatitis usually involves pancreatitis with organ failure for more than 48 hours.

Complications of acute pancreatitis can include:

Early diagnosis and treatment can prevent complications that lead to death, such as multiple organ failure and pancreatic necrosis.

Gallstones can cause gallstone pancreatitis. Reducing your risk of developing gallstones may also lower your risk of developing gallstone pancreatitis.

Researchers don’t know exactly why gallstones form, but there’s little evidence that certain lifestyle habits may contribute.

You may be able to reduce your risk of gallstones by:

  • manage weight if you are overweight, which can lower the amount of cholesterol in your bile
  • avoiding foods high in saturated fat, such as:
    • cakes, cookies and baked goods
  • eat lots of fruits and vegetables
  • eating nuts, such as peanuts or cashews

Gallstone pancreatitis is the most common cause of acute pancreatitis. This happens when gallstones get stuck in the ducts that connect your gallbladder to your small intestine through your pancreas. This blockage can lead to a backup of pancreatic enzymes inside the pancreas. This can cause inflammation of the pancreas.

Most cases of gallstone pancreatitis are mild and usually resolve within about a week with proper treatment. To reduce the risk of serious complications, it is important to see a doctor if you have symptoms of gallstone pancreatitis.

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