The pancreas is a long, flat, pear-shaped organ located behind the stomach. It makes digestive enzymes and hormones, including insulin. Chronic pancreatitis is a progressive inflammation of the pancreas marked by frequent acute attacks and risk of permanent organ damage.
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Chronic pancreatitis may result from injury, chronic infection, drug or toxic exposure, autoimmune disease, or blockage of the pancreas. In some cases it is genetic and sometimes has no known cause.
Chronic pancreatitis is more common in men. Other factors that may increase your risk of chronic pancreatitis include:
Personal health history, such as:
- Alcohol use disorder
- Recurrent attacks of acute pancreatitis
- Chronic kidney disease
- Alpha 1 anti-trypsin deficiency
- Congenital conditions, such as pancreas divisum
- Ischemia—insufficient blood supply to the pancreas
- Hyperlipidemia —elevated blood fat levels
- Hypertriglyceridemia—elevated blood triglyceride levels
- Hypercalcemia —elevated blood calcium levels
- Cystic fibrosis
- Autoimmune disease
Family history of:
- Chronic pancreatitis
- Hyperparathyroidism associated with chronic pancreatitis
Conditions that obstruct the passageway from the pancreas to the small intestine include:
- Pseudocysts—build up of fluids and debris
Chronic pancreatitis is a risk factor for developing pancreatic cancer.
Symptoms are not specific early on in the course of the disease. They may be mild, but progressive. Chronic pancreatitis may cause:
- Abdominal pain that may get worse when eating or drinking, spreads to the back, or becomes constant and disabling
- Nausea and vomiting
- Weight loss
- White, fatty, or oily stools
- Symptoms of diabetes
- Yellowish color of the skin or whites of the eyes— jaundice
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. The diagnosis of chronic pancreatitis is difficult.
Test may include:
- Blood tests
- Stool tests
Certain enzymes are much higher in the blood with chronic pancreatitis. The stool may have more fat.
Images may be taken of your bodily structures. This can be done with:
The goals of treatment for chronic pancreatitis are to relieve pain, and manage nutritional and metabolic problems.
Treatment may be started in a hospital until you are stabilized. Stabilization can be done with:
- IV fluids
- Nasogastric tube—A long, thin tube is threaded through your nose and into your stomach for feeding
Your doctor may recommend:
- Prescription pain relievers
- Pancreatic enzymes
- Vitamin supplements
- Medications to control diabetes if it develops
You will be advised to stop drinking alcohol. This may require counseling or a rehabilitation program. Stopping your alcohol intake is the most important intervention in your treatment.
If you smoke, talk to your doctor about how you can successfully quit.
You may be advised to restrict the amount of fat in your diet. Pancreatic damage interferes with the body's ability to process fats. A registered dietitian can work with you and create a healthy meal plan.
Surgery may be needed in severe cases:
- Necrosectomy—Removal of dying or dead (necrotic) pancreatic tissue. Pancreatic necrosis is more serious if an infection is present. This procedure can also be done with endoscopy.
- ERCP—To open any collapsed ducts or drain cysts.
- Cholecystectomy —To remove the gallbladder.
To help reduce your chances of chronic pancreatitis, avoid or stop using tobacco and alcohol.
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
National Pancreas Foundation
Canadian Association of Gastroenterology
Chronic pancreatitis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T116518/Chronic-pancreatitis. Updated February 20, 2017. Accessed December 21, 2017.
Chronic pancreatitis. Tulane University School of Medicine website. Available at: https://medicine.tulane.edu/find-doctor/surgical-care/liver-pancreas-center/liver-pancreas-conditions-symptoms/chronic. Accessed December 21, 2017.
Pancreatitis. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website. Available at: https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/pancreatitis/all-content. Accessed December 21, 2017.
Rasmussen HH, Irtun O, Olesen SS, Drewes AM, Holst M. Nutrition in chronic pancreatitis. World J Gastroenterol. 2013;19(42):7267-7275.
Last reviewed November 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD, FAAP Last Updated: 12/21/2017