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Chronic Pancreatitis


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Apr 2020| Content last modified Apr 2020
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What is chronic pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis is inflammation of your pancreas. Your pancreas is an organ in your upper belly that makes juices that help you digest food. Your pancreas also makes insulin, which helps control your blood sugar.

Chronic means that a problem goes on over a long period of time. In chronic pancreatitis, you have scar tissue in your pancreas that keeps causing problems. Pancreatitis that starts suddenly is called acute pancreatitis. Getting acute pancreatitis over and over again can cause chronic pancreatitis.

  • Chronic pancreatitis causes belly pain

  • The pain may be constant or may come and go

  • The pancreas stops making juices that help you digest your food

  • Sometimes chronic pancreatitis damages cells that make insulin and you get diabetes

  • Treatment includes changing your diet, taking special medicines to help digest food, avoiding alcohol, and taking drugs to relieve the pain

The Pancreas

The Pancreas

What causes chronic pancreatitis?

Causes of chronic pancreatitis include:

  • Heavy, long term alcohol abuse

  • Having a gene (physical trait you inherit from a parent) for certain disorders, such as cystic fibrosis, hereditary pancreatitis, or autoimmune pancreatitis

Sometimes there's no clear cause.

What are the symptoms of chronic pancreatitis?

The main symptom is:

  • Pain in your upper belly (the area below your breastbone)

The pain may follow one of several patterns:

  • Pain that goes away or gets better but keeps coming back

  • Severe pain that lasts for several hours or up to several days

You may also have other symptoms such as:

  • Bulky, unusually stinky, light-colored stool

  • Weight loss and malnutrition

  • High blood sugar caused by diabetes

Chronic pancreatitis can raise the risk of cancer of the pancreas.

How can doctors tell if I have chronic pancreatitis?

Doctors do certain tests, such as:

  • Blood tests

  • Stool tests to see if you're absorbing your food

  • X-rays of your belly

  • MRCP (a special kind of MRI that lets your doctor see your liver, gallbladder, bile ducts, pancreas, or pancreatic duct)

  • Endoscopic ultrasound (a special kind of ultrasound using a long tube that's passed through your mouth and down into your intestine)

How do doctors treat chronic pancreatitis?

Doctors treat pain caused by chronic pancreatitis by:

  • Asking you to fast, which means not eating or drinking for a certain amount of time to rest your pancreas and intestine

  • Giving you fluids in a vein

  • Giving you pain medicine

People with severe pancreatitis may have to stay in the hospital.

Doctors treat digestive problems caused by pancreatitis by having you:

  • Eat 4 to 5 low-fat meals a day

  • Take pancreatic enzyme extracts to help you digest food better

  • Sometimes, take certain vitamins (A, D, E, and K)

Doctors will have you avoid alcohol, stop smoking, and eat less fat in your diet.

You may need treatment for problems caused by your chronic pancreatitis, such as medicine or insulin for diabetes.

Doctors may do surgery to treat your chronic pancreatitis if you have severe pain and other treatments don’t help you. They may remove some of the diseased pancreas, open up the pancreatic duct, or cut nerves near the pancreas to relieve the pain.

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