Pancreatic cysts are saclike pockets of fluid on or in your pancreas, a large organ behind the stomach that produces hormones and enzymes that help digest food.
Most pancreatic cysts aren't cancerous, and many don't cause symptoms. They're typically found during imaging testing for another problem. Some are actually noncancerous (benign) pockets of fluids lined with scar or inflammatory tissue, not the type of cells found in true cysts (pseudocysts).
But some pancreatic cysts can be or can become cancerous. Your doctor might take a sample of the pancreatic cyst fluid to determine if cancer cells are present. Or your doctor might recommend monitoring a cyst over time for changes that indicate cancer.
You may not have symptoms from pancreatic cysts, which are often found when imaging tests of the abdomen are done for another reason.
When signs or symptoms of pancreatic cysts do occur, they typically include:
- Persistent abdominal pain, which may radiate to your back
- A mass you can feel in your upper abdomen
- Nausea and vomiting
When to see a doctor
Rarely, cysts can become infected. See a doctor if you have a fever and persistent abdominal pain.
A ruptured pseudocyst can be a medical emergency, but fortunately is rare. Fluid released by the pseudocyst can damage nearby blood vessels and cause massive bleeding. A ruptured pseudocyst can also cause infection of the abdominal cavity (peritonitis). Seek emergency medical treatment if you have signs or symptoms of internal bleeding and shock, including:
- Severe abdominal pain
- Decreased consciousness
- Weak and rapid heartbeat
- Vomiting of blood
The cause of most pancreatic cysts is unknown. Some cysts are associated with rare illnesses including von Hippel-Lindau disease, a genetic disorder that can affect the pancreas and other organs.
Pseudocysts often follow a bout of a painful condition in which digestive enzymes become prematurely active and irritate the pancreas (pancreatitis). Pseudocysts can also result from injury to the abdomen, such as from a car accident.
Heavy alcohol use and gallstones are risk factors for pancreatitis, and pancreatitis is a risk factor for pseudocysts. Abdominal injury is also a risk factor for pseudocysts.
The best way to avoid pseudocysts is to avoid pancreatitis, which is usually caused by gallstones or heavy alcohol use. If gallstones are triggering pancreatitis, you may need to have your gallbladder removed. If your pancreatitis is due to alcohol use, not drinking can reduce your risk.