Chronic pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas that worsens over time. The pancreas is an organ that sits behind the stomach. It makes fluids that help to break down food in the small intestine.
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There is often no known cause. In some people, it may be due to:
- Exposure to toxins, such as tobacco smoke, alcohol, and materials in some workplaces or the environment
- A blockage, such as a tumor or gallstones
- Problems with the immune system
This problem is more common in men and people who are Black. Other things that may raise the risk are:
The main problem is mild to severe pain in the upper belly. It may also spread to the back. Pain may be all the time or it may come and go.
Other problems may be:
- Pain that worsens when eating or drinking
- A swollen belly
- Nausea and vomiting
- Weight loss
- Loose, fatty, or oily stools
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done.
Blood tests will be done to look for certain enzymes that point to chronic pancreatitis.
Images may be taken of the abdomen. This can be done with:
A pancreatic function test may be done. This test measures how well the pancreas is making a hormone needed to digest food.
The goal of treatment is to manage symptoms. Choices are:
- Supportive care, such as drinking extra fluids or getting fluids through an IV
- Dietary changes, such as a low fat diet or nutrition given through a tube that is passed through the nose and into the stomach
- Lifestyle changes, such as not drinking alcohol and not smoking
- Medicines, such as:
- Pain relievers
- Pancreatic enzymes to help with digestion
- Corticosteroids to ease swelling
People who are not helped by these methods may need surgery. The type of surgery done depends on the reason for the pancreatitis. Some choices are:
- Percutaneous catheter drainage to drain fluid from the pancreas
- ERCP to open any blockages or drain cysts
to remove the gallbladder
- Necrosectomy to remove dying or dead tissue from the pancreas
The risk of this problem may be lowered by:
- Limiting alcohol
- Not smoking
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 December 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review Board
James P. Cornell, MD
Last Updated: 2/11/2021