Introduction 

Chronic pancreatitis is a condition where the pancreas (a small organ located behind the stomach and below the ribcage) becomes permanently damaged from inflammation.

It's 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're experiencing severe pain – it's 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
  • a problem with the immune system, causing it to attack the pancreas
  • an inherited genetic mutation disrupting the functions of the pancreas

In as many as 3 out of 10 people with the condition, the cause cannot be identified – this is known as "idiopathic" chronic pancreatitis.

Read more about the causes of chronic pancreatitis.

Who's 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's treated

In most cases of chronic pancreatitis, there's no specific treatment to reduce the inflammation and repair the damage to the pancreas.

Treatment mainly focuses on lifestyle changes (see below) and medication to relieve the pain. Surgery is sometimes needed to treat severe chronic pain that doesn't respond to painkillers.

However, the pain can be difficult to treat and can seriously affect your quality of life.

People who don't smoke cigarettes and 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.

Complications

Living with chronic pain can cause mental as well as physical strain. It's important to speak to your GP if you're experiencing stress, anxiety or depression caused by chronic pancreatitis.

Diabetes is a common complication of chronic pancreatitis and affects about a third of people with the condition. It occurs when the pancreas is damaged and 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.




Page last reviewed: 05/03/2015

Next review due: 05/03/2017