Pancreatitis (cont.)

What is chronic pancreatitis?

Chronic pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas that does not heal or improve - it gets worse over time and leads to permanent damage. Chronic pancreatitis, like acute pancreatitis, occurs when digestive enzymes attack the pancreas and nearby tissues, causing episodes of pain. Chronic pancreatitis often develops in people who are between the ages of 30 and 40.

The most common cause of chronic pancreatitis is many years of heavy alcohol use. The chronic form of pancreatitis can be triggered by one acute attack that damages the pancreatic duct. The damaged duct causes the pancreas to become inflamed. Scar tissue develops and the pancreas is slowly destroyed.

Other causes of chronic pancreatitis are

  • hereditary disorders of the pancreas
  • cystic fibrosis - the most common inherited disorder leading to chronic pancreatitis
  • hypercalcemia - high levels of calcium in the blood
  • hyperlipidemia or hypertriglyceridemia - high levels of blood fats
  • some medicines
  • certain autoimmune conditions
  • unknown causes

Hereditary pancreatitis can present in a person younger than age 30, but it might not be diagnosed for several years. Episodes of abdominal pain and diarrhea lasting several days come and go over time and can progress to chronic pancreatitis. A diagnosis of hereditary pancreatitis is likely if the person has two or more family members with pancreatitis in more than one generation.

What are the symptoms of chronic pancreatitis?

Most people with chronic pancreatitis experience upper abdominal pain, although some people have no pain at all. The pain may spread to the back, feel worse when eating or drinking, and become constant and disabling. In some cases, abdominal pain goes away as the condition worsens, most likely because the pancreas is no longer making digestive enzymes. Other symptoms include:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • weight loss
  • diarrhea
  • oily stools

People with chronic pancreatitis often lose weight, even when their appetite and eating habits are normal. The weight loss occurs because the body does not secrete enough pancreatic enzymes to digest food, so nutrients are not absorbed normally. Poor digestion leads to malnutrition due to excretion of fat in the stool.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 7/3/2014

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