Chronic pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas that does not heal or improve, gets worse over time, and leads to permanent damage.
The pancreas is an organ located behind the stomach that produces chemicals (called enzymes) needed to digest food. It also produces the hormones insulin and glucagon.
When inflammation and scarring of the pancreas occur, the organ is no longer able to make the right amount of these enzymes. As a result, your body may be unable to digest fat and other important components of food.
Damage to the portions of the pancreas that make insulin may lead to diabetes.
The condition is most often caused by alcohol abuse over many years. Repeated episodes of acute pancreatitis can lead to chronic pancreatitis. Genetics may be a factor in some cases. Sometimes the cause is not known.
Other conditions that have been linked to chronic pancreatitis:
Chronic pancreatitis occurs more often in men than in women. The condition often develops in people ages 30 - 40.
The symptoms may become more frequent as the condition gets worse. The symptoms may mimic pancreatic cancer. Sitting up and leaning forward may sometimes relieve the abdominal pain of pancreatitis.
Tests for pancreatitis include:
Inflammation or calcium deposits of the pancreas, or changes to the ducts of the pancreas may be seen on:
An exploratory laparotomy may be done to confirm the diagnosis, but this is usually done for acute pancreatitis.
People with severe pain or who are losing weight may need to stay in the hospital for:
Eating the right diet is important for people with chronic pancreatitis. A nutritionist can help you create the best diet to maintain a healthy weight and receive the correct vitamins and minerals. All patients should be:
The doctor may prescribe pancreatic enzymes, which you must take with every meal. The enzymes will help you digest food better and gain weight.
Avoid smoking and drinking alcoholic beverages, even if your pancreatitis is mild.
Other treatments may involve:
Surgery may be recommended if a blockage is found. In severe cases, part or all of the pancreas may be removed.
This is a serious disease that may lead to disability and death. You can reduce the risk by avoiding alcohol.
Call for an appointment with your health care provider if:
Determining the cause of acute pancreatitis and treating it quickly may help prevent chronic pancreatitis. Not drinking a lot of alcohol reduces the risk of developing this condition.
Forsmark CE. Pancreatitis. In: Goldman L, Shafer AI, eds. Cecil Medicine 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap46.
Updated by: George F. Longstreth, MD, Department of Gastroenterology, Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program, San Diego, California. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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