Chronic pancreatitis is long-term progressive inflammatory disease of the pancreas that leads to permanent deterioration of the structure and function of the pancreas. It is estimated that in Western Europe and North American chronic pancreatitis is diagnosed in 3 to 9 people in every 100,000 each year.
The most common cause is long-term alcohol abuse - it is thought to account for approximately 70% of all cases. The gradual rise in the incidence of chronic pancreatitis in several countries around the globe has been attributed to increasing alcohol consumption and earlier diagnosis.
Chronic pancreatitis results in over 122,000 outpatient visits and 56,000 hospitalizations annually in the USA. Significantly more men than women are affected.
Chronic pancreatitis usually begins in adults aged 40 to 50.
What is the pancreas?
The pancreas produces important enzymes and hormones that help break down foods.
The pancreas is a gland organ that is located in the abdomen, behind the stomach and below the ribcage.
The pancreas is part of the digestive system and produces important enzymes and hormones that help break down foods. It has an endocrine function because it releases juices directly into the bloodstream, and it has an exocrine function because it releases juices into ducts.
Enzymes, or digestive juices, produced by the pancreas are secreted into the small intestine to further break down food after it has left the stomach. The gland also produces the hormone insulin and secretes it into the bloodstream in order to regulate the body's glucose or sugar level.
Symptoms of chronic pancreatitis
Common signs and symptoms of chronic pancreatitis include:
- Pain - the patient may feel pain in the upper abdomen. The pain may sometimes be severe and can travel along the back. It is usually more intense after eating. Some pain relief may be gained by leaning forward or curling into a ball.
- Nausea and vomiting - more commonly experienced during episodes of pain.
- Constant pain - As the disease progresses the episodes of pain become more frequent and severe. Some patients eventually suffer constant abdominal pain.
As chronic pancreatitis progresses, and the pancreas' ability to produce digestive juices deteriorates, the following symptoms may appear:
- Smelly and greasy feces (stools)
- Abdominal cramps
- Flatulence (breaking wind, farting)
Eventually the pancreas may not be able to produce insulin, leading to diabetes type 1, with the following symptoms:
- Frequent urination
- Intense hunger
- Weight loss
- Tiredness (fatigue)
- Blurred vision
On the next page we look at the causes of chronic pancreatitis and how it is diagnosed. On the final page we discuss the treatments for chronic pancreatitis, possible complications and prevention.