Chronic Pancreatitis | Digestive Health Program | Loyola Medicine

Chronic Pancreatitis

Overview and Facts about Chronic Pancreatitis

Chronic pancreatitis is an inflammatory condition of the pancreas that worsens over time. It does not heal or improve, and ultimately it can lead to permanent pancreatic damage. People with chronic pancreatitis end up having difficulty digesting food and making pancreatic hormones, such as insulin, which are needed to maintain digestive health and metabolic balance in the body.

Symptoms and Signs of Chronic Pancreatitis

Many people with chronic pancreatitis experience pain in the upper abdomen that can spread to the back and worsen with eating or drinking. In some cases, there is no pain at all. However, common symptoms one might experience include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Feces that appear oily or fatty
  • Nausea
  • Pale feces
  • Vomiting
  • Weight loss despite having a normal appetite and food intake

Patients who have chronic pancreatitis may experience a lower quality of life.

Causes and Risk Factors of Chronic Pancreatitis

Chronic pancreatitis is more common among men, and it typically affects people between the ages of 30 and 40. Aside from age, there are several other factors known to increase the risk for chronic pancreatitis, and they include:

  • Autoimmune conditions, which occur when the body’s immune system attacks its own body
  • Blocked pancreatic duct or common bile duct
  • Genetic mutations associated with cystic fibrosis
  • Genetics–most people with chronic pancreatitis have two or more immediate family members with the condition.
  • Heavy alcohol use

Tests and Diagnosis of Chronic Pancreatitis

Imaging tests that provide views of the pancreas’ structure are the most common, effective way to test for and diagnose chronic pancreatitis. The imaging test options include:

  • CT scan, which produces 3-D images that can show the extent of damage to the pancreas.
  • Endoscopic ultrasound, which is when a flexible tube is inserted down the throat to collect sound-wave imagery from the pancreas and bile ducts.
  • MRCP, which is when dye is injected into a patient’s veins to help show the pancreas, gallbladder and bile ducts more clearly. The patient lies in a cylindrical tube to have their imagery taken.
  • Transabdominal ultrasound, which involves a handheld device being used to send sound waves over the pancreatic area. If gallstones are present, the sound waves will bounce off them, revealing their location.

Blood tests are typically not helpful for making a chronic pancreatitis diagnosis.

Treatment and Care for Chronic Pancreatitis

Improving digestive function is one of the primary treatment goals for chronic pancreatitis. Artificial digestive enzymes and insulin (if you have diabetes) are both viable treatment options. Another important goal of treatment is to manage pain, as chronic pancreatitis can entail a great deal of it. Your doctor will help decide what level of painkiller is right for you.

If all else fails, surgery is an option, but this is typically avoided due to the potential for complications and the removal of good tissue.