Acute pancreatitis (AP) and chronic pancreatitis (CP) were originally described as two well defined entities on the opposite end of a disease spectrum. We now think that recurrent acute pancreatitis (RAP) is a transition stage between acute and chronic pancreatitis.

pancreatitis-acute organ

Acute pancreatitis is defined as an acute inflammatory condition characterized by epigastric pain, elevated amylase and lipase and imaging consistent with pancreatitis. There is currently no consensus definition of chronic pancreatitis. One consistent requirement is that there is documentation of irreversible changes either histologically (i.e., fibrosis, atrophy) or morphologically (i.e., calcifications, ductal abnormalities with or without other accompanying features (e.g., pain, AP, or RAP), organ dysfunction (diabetes, exocrine deficiency), and impaired quality of life.  

Recurrent acute pancreatitis is defined as two or more distinct episodes of acute pancreatitis with near complete resolution of symptoms between episodes with no evidence of chronic pancreatitis. The difference between RAP and CP is based on morphology and histology of the pancreas. The difference is based on whether or not there are definitive changes of CP in cross sectional studies, like a CT scan or a MRI.  

In the United States, acute pancreatitis is one of the most common gastrointestinal causes of hospitalization. Although most cases of acute pancreatitis are self-limited, studies have shown that up to one quarter of patients can have a reoccurrence of acute pancreatitis and up to ten percent of patients go on to develop chronic pancreatitis.

Recurrent acute pancreatitis by definition occurs when a patient has two or more episodes of acute pancreatitis. A challenge in the diagnosis acute recurrent pancreatitis is that there is often symptom overlap with chronic pancreatitis. Patients may present with an acute attack, a recurrence or may have an acute on chronic flare with minimal imaging findings consistent with chronic pancreatitis. In addition, sometimes determining the etiology of RAP remains challenging. Alcohol and gallstones are by far the most common causes of RAP and together they account for 70% of the cases. Other common etiologies include toxins, metabolic, idiopathic, genetic, autoimmune and obstructive causes. Patients with RAP also are younger with a higher incidence in patients (<40 years old).  

The risk of developing acute recurrent pancreatitis can be reduced by encouraging alcohol abstinence and by performing a cholecystectomy after the first episode of acute pancreatitis in patients diagnosed with biliary disease. It is also important to note that because up to thirty percent of patients have no defined etiology of recurrent acute pancreatitis on routine lab work and imaging treatment options are limited. Etiologies such as pancreas divisum, occult stone disease and sphincter of Oddi dysfunction and genetic causes are overrepresented in idiopathic RAP patients.

A patient’s history and standard tests such as blood chemistry, trans-abdominal ultrasound, MRCP, and CT scan generally detect the causes of recurrent episodes in about 70% of cases. When no cause is found at the initial diagnostic work-up, these patients should have a more advanced diagnostic work-up, that includes specific pancreatic tests, genetic testing, MRCP with secretin stimulation, sphincter of Oddi motility evaluation, EUS, and in selected cases ERCP. Genetic and autoimmune pancreatitis can be diagnosed by testing respectively for CFTR or SPINK1/PRSS1 gene mutations and IgG 4.

In patients with idiopathic RAP, endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography and endoscopic sphincterotomy with or without pancreatic duct stent placement have been suggested to offer some benefit however the long term benefit and outcomes have not been adequately defined in the literature.  Laparoscopic cholecystectomy is curative when gallbladder stones or sludge are detected; however, the clinical benefit for sludge is less evident. In documented SOD endoscopic sphincterotomy is currently the standard therapy.
Amit H. Sachdev

Clinical Instructor of Medicine, Interventional Gastroenterology, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons

John M. Poneros M.D.

Associate Professor of Medicine, Associate Director of Endoscopy, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons



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