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Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the
Harvard Medical School

What Is It?

Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas, the large gland located behind the stomach. People with chronic pancreatitis have persistent inflammation of the pancreas that leads to permanent damage.

The main function of the pancreas is to produce digestive enzymes and hormones, such as insulin, that regulate blood sugar levels. Damage to the pancreas can cause problems with digestion, absorption of nutrients, and production of insulin. As a result, people with chronic pancreatitis can lose weight, experience diarrhea, become malnourished with vitamin deficiencies and develop diabetes.

It usually takes several years for permanent changes and symptoms to occur. Most cases of chronic pancreatitis are caused by long-standing over use of alcohol. Since only 5% to 10% of alcoholics develop chronic pancreatitis, there probably are other factors that influence whether someone develops chronic pancreatitis. It is generally thought that people who continue to drink after one or more bouts of alcohol-related acute pancreatitis are more likely to develop chronic pancreatitis.

In some uncommon cases, a single severe episode of acute pancreatitis can cause enough damage that the disease becomes chronic.

Besides over us of alcohol, other causes of chronic pancreatitis include:

  • Heredity -- Hereditary chronic pancreatitis is a rare genetic disorder that predisposes a person to develop the disease, usually before age 20.

  • Genetic causes -- Mutations of the cystic fibrosis gene is the most widely recognized genetic cause.

  • Blockage of the duct that drains digestive enzymes from the pancreas --If the enzymes don't drain properly, they can back up and damage the pancreas. Blockage can be caused by gallstones, scarring from prior surgery, tumors, or abnormalities of the pancreas or of the shape or location of the pancreatic duct. If the blockage is found early, surgery or a procedure called endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) to relieve the blockage may help to prevent damage to the pancreas.

  • Autoimmune pancreatitis -- For unexplained reasons, some people develop antibodies that attack their own pancreas.

  • Very high blood triglyceride levels

Sometimes the underlying cause of chronic pancreatitis cannot be identified.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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