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What is chronic pancreatitis?

Chronic pancreatitis is a painful long-term condition caused by inflammation of the pancreas, causing scarring and damage to this important organ of the body.

The pancreas has two primary functions:

Symptoms of chronic pancreatitis

Damage to the pancreas caused by chronic pancreatitis can also result in greasy, very bad smelling stools or diarrhoea.

What causes chronic pancreatitis?

Repeated bouts of acute pancreatitis that permanently damage the pancreas.

Long-term alcohol abuse is the most common cause of chronic pancreatitis. In chronic idiopathic pancreatitis, there is no obvious cause.

Other variations of the condition have different causes:

  • In autoimmune pancreatitis, the body’s immune system wrongly attacks the pancreas.
  • In hereditary pancreatitis, the cause is inherited genetic mutations.

Chronic pancreatitis diagnosis

A doctor will diagnose chronic pancreatitis by arranging tests to view the pancreas, including:

  • Ultrasound scan
  • CT scan
  • Endoscopic ultrasonography using an ultrasound probe on the end of a thin, flexible tube passed down through the mouth into the stomach
  • Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP) - an MRI scan done after being injected with a special contrast agent to make the pancreas show up better
  • Biopsy - taking a sample of cells from the pancreas for laboratory testing.


Chronic pancreatitis treatment

Chronic pancreatitis treatment may involve medication, an operation and lifestyle changes.

Stopping drinking alcohol will be advised to help prevent further damage to the pancreas. A person with chronic pancreatitis will probably also be advised to quit smoking, eat a healthy balanced diet and achieve a healthy weight.

Pancreatic enzyme supplements may be prescribed to help the digestive system. Side effects of this medicine include diarrhoea, constipation, nausea, vomiting and stomach pain.

Prescription pain relief may be recommended, sometimes in combination with another medication to help prevent stomach ulcers.

Operations may be recommended for pain caused by blockages and a build-up of calcium in damaged pancreatic tissue.

Pain may also be reduced by removing the head of the pancreas in a procedure called a pancreas resection. This may also relieve pressure on ducts in the pancreas.

Chronic pancreatitis complications

  • Pancreatic diabetes: Many people with chronic pancreatitis develop diabetes.
  • Emotional and psychological health: People who have constant pain may experience mental health problems.
  • Pancreatic cancer: Chronic pancreatitis causes a small increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer.
  • Pseudocysts: These sacs of fluid may develop on the surface of the pancreas, causing bloating, indigestion or abdominal pain.

WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on February 17, 2017

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