Chronic pancreatitis begins as acute pancreatitis and becomes chronic when irreversible scarring of the pancreas occurs. There are a number of things that increase a person's risk of developing this condition, such as alcohol consumption, smoking, genetic factors and other conditions or traumatic events that injure the pancreas. The pancreas may eventually stop producing the enzymes necessary for your body to digest and absorb nutrients. In its advanced stages, the disease can cause the pancreas to lose its ability to produce insulin.
Most people with chronic pancreatitis experience pain in the back and abdomen. In some cases, abdominal pain goes away as the condition advances, probably because the pancreas is no longer making digestive enzymes
Weight loss is often a symptom of chronic pancreatitis because the body does not secrete enough pancreatic enzymes to break down food and nutrients are not absorbed normally. Poor digestion leads to excretion of fat, protein and sugar in the stool. If the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas have been damaged, diabetes may develop.
The diagnosis of chronic pancreatitis frequently can be made based entirely on your symptoms and medical history. Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), computerized tomography (CT) scans, and endoscopic ultrasound also can help your doctor make a definite diagnosis.
Pancreatic function tests help determine if your pancreas is still making enough digestive enzymes. In more advanced stages of the disease when diabetes and malabsorption occur, your doctor may recommend blood, urine and stool tests.
Treatment of chronic pancreatitis depends on the cause of the disease, severity of the associated pain and effectiveness of former treatment approaches. The first step of treatment focuses on relieving pain and eating a diet that is high in carbohydrates and low in fat. It is essential to stop drinking alcohol entirely.
Your doctor may prescribe pancreatic enzymes to take with meals if your pancreas does not secrete enough of its own enzymes. The supplemental enzymes should be taken with every meal to help your body digest food and regain some weight. If you have diabetes, insulin and other drugs may be needed to control blood sugar levels.
There are a number of surgical procedures available for patients whose pain is not relieved by medications or other approaches. Surgery may involve removing stones from the pancreas, draining blocked ducts, or partial or entire removal of the pancreas.
Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.