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.
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:
- Excess alcohol intake
- Recurrent attacks of acute pancreatitis
Family history of:
- Hyperparathyroidism associated with chronic pancreatitis
- Chronic pancreatitis
- Chronic kidney disease
- 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
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 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
- DiarrheaWhite stools
- Symptoms of diabetes,
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. The diagnosis of chronic pancreatitis is difficult. Symptoms are not specific early on in the course of the disease.
Your bodily fluids and waste products may be tested. This can be done with:
- Blood tests
- Stool tests
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.
- ECRP—To open any collapsed ducts or drain cysts.
- Cholecystectomy—To remove the gallbladder.
Aside from avoiding too much alcohol, there are no current guidelines to prevent chronic pancreatitis.
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 May 12, 2016. Accessed September 28, 2016.
Chronic pancreatitis. Tulane University School of Medicine website. Available at: http://tulane.edu/som/pancreas-biliary/diseases/chronic-pancreatitis.cfm. Accessed November 12, 2015.
Grant JP. Nutritional support in acute and chronic pancreatitis. Surg Clin North Am. 2011;91(4):805-820, viii.
Pancreatitis. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website. Available at: http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/pancreatitis. Updated August 16, 2012. Accessed November 12, 2015.
Singh VV, Toskes PP. Medical therapy for chronic pancreatitis pain. Curr Gastroenterol Rep. 2003; 5:110.
Last reviewed November 2015 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.