A 60-year-old man presents to the emergency department with nausea and abdominal pain, and is admitted with pancreatitis due to alcohol. In the evening after receiving pain medication, his abdominal pain is diminished but still present. He has an appetite and asks for food.

What do you recommend?

A. Nil per os (NPO) until pain is resolved.

B. NPO until amylase/lipase have normalized.

C. Nasogastric tube placement.

D. Okay to start feeding.

Myth: Treatment of pancreatitis includes early avoidance of food.

The conventional management of acute pancreatitis involves an NPO regimen until the pain and nausea have resolved.1 This dogma is offered because of the concern that food intake will stimulate pancreatic enzyme release in an already inflamed/injured pancreas.

The approach of NPO and slowly reintroducing feeding after prolonged periods of being without food is associated with pain relapses and increased length of hospitalizations.2 Nasojejunal feedings have become well accepted in patients with severe pancreatitis requiring ICU care.3

Are there data to show that oral feeding of patients with mild pancreatitis causes worse outcomes?

Dr. Niels Teich and colleagues randomized 143 hospitalized patients with mild pancreatitis to eating when they felt ready to (69 patients) vs. a group that were kept NPO until lipase levels returned to normal.4 The patients who started eating when they were ready left the hospital a day earlier than the patients who were fed only when lipase levels normalized (7 days vs. 8 days). There was no difference in abdominal pain between the two groups.

Dr. Maxim Petrov and colleagues looked at whether nasogastric tube feeding was preferable to NPO in patients with mild to moderate pancreatitis.5 In a randomized trial of 35 patients with pancreatitis, 17 received nasogastric feedings within 24 hours of admission, and 18 were NPO. The patients who received early nasogastric feedings had lower pain scores at 72 hours, compared with the NPO group (1 vs. 3 on a visual analog 10-point scale, P = .036). The number of patients who did not require opiates at 48 hours was also significantly less in the nasogastric feeding group (9 vs. 3, P = .024).

I think the most striking difference was in patients’ ability to tolerate oral feeding. Patients in both groups received oral food at an average of 4 days; only 1 of 17 patients in the nasogastric feeding group could not tolerate feeding, compared with 9 of 18 patients in the NPO group.

Dr. Gunilla Eckerwall and colleagues studied the outcome of immediate oral feeding in patients with mild pancreatitis.6 Sixty patients with mild acute pancreatitis, defined by amylase greater than 3 times normal and APACHE scores less than 8, were randomized to either immediate oral feeding (30 patients) or fasting (30 patients). Key outcome measures in the study were amylase, systemic inflammatory response, and length of hospital stay.

There were no differences in amylase levels, labs measuring systemic inflammatory response, or gastrointestinal symptoms between the two groups. The immediate oral feeding group had a significantly shorter length of hospital stay than the fasting group (4 days vs. 6 days, P less than .05).

So, what does all this tell us about feeding patients with acute pancreatitis? For mild to moderate acute pancreatitis, the outcomes appear to be no worse when patients are fed early. There may be a trend to quicker hospital discharge in those who get fed earlier. The studies have all been small, and a large multicenter trial would be welcome.


1. Gastroenterology. 2007 May;132(5):2022-44 .

2. Gut. 1997 Feb;40(2):262-6 .

3. Am J Gastroenterol. 2006 Oct;101(10):2379-400 .

4. Pancreas. 2010 Oct;39(7):1088-92 .

5. Clin Nutr. 2013 Oct;32(5):697-703 .

6. Clin Nutr. 2007 Dec;26(6):758-63 .

Dr. Paauw is professor of medicine in the division of general internal medicine at the University of Washington, Seattle, and he serves as third-year medical student clerkship director at the University of Washington. Contact Dr. Paauw at dpaauw@uw.edu .