Autoimmune Pancreatitis Diagnosis

How is an autoimmune pancreatitis diagnosis made?

As autoimmune pancreatitis has only been recognized as a condition relatively recently, it can present diagnostic challenges. Whilst an autoimmune pancreatitis diagnosis may not be easy, it’s essential that the condition is identified correctly.

Unfortunately, autoimmune pancreatitis can easily be mistaken for pancreatic cancer. As the two conditions require radically different treatment methods, it’s vital that an accurate autoimmune pancreatitis diagnosis is made.

Jaundice is one of the most common symptoms of autoimmune pancreatitis and patients may present with this as their only symptom. Despite this, jaundice can occur because of a range of conditions so autoimmune pancreatitis may not be suspected at first.

However, once other causes of jaundice are ruled out, further tests may be undertaken in order to make an autoimmune pancreatitis diagnosis. Often, CT and MRI scans of the pancreas can determine whether the organ has been damaged. If so, this may make an autoimmune pancreatitis diagnosis more likely.

In addition to scans, phlebotomy results, pancreatic histology and response to initial treatment tend to confirm the autoimmune pancreatitis diagnosis.

What is the pathophysiology of autoimmune pancreatitis?

Recognized as a systemic fibroinflammatory disorder, autoimmune pancreatitis occurs when the body mistakenly attacks healthy cells. As with other autoimmune disorders, it is believed that the immune systems identifies these cells as potentially harmful foreign bodies. It then attacks them, thus resulting in chronic diseases and conditions.

Whilst much research has been done into the cause of autoimmune disorders, it is still not fully understood why the body reacts in this way. Whilst autoimmune pancreatitis limits damage to the pancreas, other autoimmune disorders may affect other organs, such as the liver in cases of autoimmune hepatitis.

Is autoimmune pancreatitis dangerous?

Any condition which involves the body attacking healthy tissue can potentially be dangerous. If left untreated, symptoms are likely to worsen and organ failure may occur. However, providing an accurate autoimmune pancreatitis diagnosis is made, treatment can be very effective.

Steroids are the preferred treatment for autoimmune pancreatitis and they often have dramatic results in a relatively short space of time. Although patients may not be required to take steroids continuously, once treatment is stopped, relapses can be fairly common. Due to this, another course of steroid treatment is likely to be prescribed.

Does autoimmune pancreatitis indicate cancer is present?

No. Although autoimmune pancreatitis diagnosis is difficult due to the similar appearance of the conditions, they are drastically different. Whilst pancreatic cancer can be notoriously difficult to treat, the same cannot be said for autoimmune pancreatitis.

As cancer can sometimes be misdiagnosed when autoimmune pancreatitis is missed, patients may undergo needless medical treatment as a result. Providing a proper diagnosis is made, however, patients can access the appropriate course of treatment.

Does autoimmune pancreatitis cause complications?

Autoimmune pancreatitis is a relatively new phenomenon. Although the condition has existed for a significant period of time, it was only recognized in the mid-1990s. As a result, there is still much to learn about the condition.

Studies thus far has shown that patients can sometimes experience a spontaneous recovery from autoimmune pancreatitis and treatment may not be required. They’ve also shown that steroid treatment can eliminate symptoms of the condition, as well as clinical presentations in blood serum results and scans.

However, some patients with autoimmune pancreatitis have also experienced pancreatic stone formation and it is believed that the two may be linked. Similarly, some patients with autoimmune pancreatitis have later been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. As yet, no confirmed link has been made between the two conditions but it is possible that autoimmune pancreatitis is a risk factor for cancer.

Whilst steroid treatment is normally effective following an autoimmune pancreatitis diagnosis, surgical intervention and sectioning of the pancreas may also be a viable treatment method. Currently, research is still being carried out into the condition so it is likely that additional treatments and curative methods will be made available in the future.

Similarly, diagnostic tests for autoimmune pancreatitis are being refined. The use of new technologies can help to differentiate between autoimmune pancreatitis and other conditions, thus resulting in faster and more accurate autoimmune pancreatitis diagnosis and treatment.

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Last Reviewed:
August 22, 2017
Last Updated:
October 17, 2017
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