Chronic pancreatitis is a condition where the pancreas becomes permanently damaged due to inflammation.
It is different to acute pancreatitis, where the inflammation is only short-term.
The most common symptom of chronic pancreatitis is repeated episodes of abdominal (tummy) pain, which can be severe.
Other symptoms tend to develop as the damage to the pancreas progresses, such as producing greasy, foul-smelling stools.
Read more about the symptoms of chronic pancreatitis and diagnosing chronic pancreatitis.
When to seek medical advice
Always visit your GP if you are experiencing severe pain – it is a warning sign that something is wrong.
Why it happens
Long-term alcohol misuse is responsible for around 7 out of every 10 cases of chronic pancreatitis. This is because heavy drinking over a number of years can repeatedly damage the pancreas.
Less common causes include:
- smoking, which can also increase the risk of alcohol-related chronic pancreatitis
- a problem with the immune system that causes it to attack the pancreas
- an inherited genetic mutation that disrupts the functions of the pancreas
In about 2 in every 10 cases, no specific cause is identified.
Read more about the causes of chronic pancreatitis.
Who is affected
Chronic pancreatitis can affect people of any age, but is most common in middle-aged men aged between 45 and 54.
Between 2012 and 2013, over 35,000 people visited hospitals in England with the condition.
How it is treated
In most cases of chronic pancreatitis, there is no specific treatment to reduce the inflammation and repair the damage to the pancreas.
Therefore, treatment mainly focuses on lifestyle changes (see below) and medication to relieve the pain. Surgery is sometimes needed to treat severe chronic pain that does not respond to painkillers.
However, the pain can be difficult to treat and can seriously affect your quality of life.
People who do not smoke cigarettes and who avoid drinking alcohol tend to experience less pain and live longer than those who continue to drink and smoke after receiving a diagnosis.
Read more about treating chronic pancreatitis.
Diabetes is a common complication of chronic pancreatitis and affects about half of people with the condition. It occurs when the pancreas is damaged and is unable to produce insulin.
People with chronic pancreatitis also have an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer.
Read more about the possible complications of chronic pancreatitis.
Anatomy of the abdomen
The pancreas is a small, tadpole-shaped organ located behind the stomach and below the ribcage. It has two important functions:
- it produces digestive chemicals (enzymes) used by the intestines to help digest food
- it produces powerful hormones – the most important being insulin, which regulates the levels of sugar (glucose) in the blood
Page last reviewed: 26/03/2013
Next review due: 26/03/2015