Chronic Pancreatitis


Pancreatitis inflames the pancreas, causing digestive enzymes to attack the tissue that produces them. Pancreatitis is considered chronic when the pancreas becomes scarred.

Causes

While the cause cannot always be determined, chronic pancreatitis is often caused by years of alcohol abuse. Repeat episodes of acute pancreatitis can lead to a chronic condition. Genetics may also be a factor in some cases.

Risk Factors

Chronic pancreatitis is more common in men than women, often developing in people ages 30 to 40.

Chronic pancreatitis has also been linked to these conditions:

  • Autoimmune problems
  • Blocked pancreatic duct
  • Complications of cystic fibrosis
  • High levels of fat, called triglycerides, in the blood
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Use of certain medications (especially estrogens, corticosteroids, thiazide diuretics and azathioprine)

Symptoms

  • Abdominal pain (greatest in the upper abdomen and sometimes felt in the back) that may last from hours to days
  • Pain that gets worse from eating or drinking (especially alcohol)
  • Chronic, unintentional weight loss
  • Diarrhea or irregular stools, nausea and vomiting

Diagnostic Tests

  • Fecal fat test
  • Serum amylase
  • Serum IgG4 (for diagnosing autoimmune pancreatitis)
  • Serum lipase
  • Serum trypsinogen

Treatment

It is recommended that all patients make the following lifestyle changes:

  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Eat a low-fat diet
  • Consult a nutritionist to ensure a diet rich in the proper vitamins and minerals
  • Eat small, frequent meals
  • Limit caffeine
  • Avoid smoking and alcohol

For those with severe pain or serious weight loss, a hospital stay may be necessary, accompanied by the following:

  • Pain medicines
  • Fluids given through a vein (IV)
  • Stopping food or fluid by mouth to limit the activity of the pancreas, and then slowly starting an oral diet
  • Inserting a tube through the nose or mouth to remove the contents of the stomach (nasogastric suctioning) may sometimes be done. The tube may stay in for 1 – 2 days, or sometimes for 1 – 2 weeks.

Other treatments may involve:

  • Pancreatic enzymes to help digest food and gain weight
  • Pain medication or a surgical nerve block to relieve pain
  • Insulin to control blood sugar levels

Frequently Asked Questions


How long can you live with chronic pancreatitis?
Chronic pancreatitis is a serious condition that can, in severe cases, be fatal. Complications from chronic pancreatitis, such as pancreatic cancer or diabetes, may reduce life expectancy. Surgical complications can also cause serious health issues, and in the worst cases, death. Studies show that up to 80% of those diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis will live at least another ten years.

What is chronic pancreatitis?
Chronic pancreatitis is a gastrointestinal condition that refers to the inflammation of your pancreas. The pancreas sits behind the stomach and produces enzymes used to aid digestion. It also secretes hormones that regulate blood sugar levels. Bouts of inflammation that occur suddenly and do not last long are characteristic of acute pancreatitis.  If the condition does not improve over time, it is then considered chronic.  

How is chronic pancreatitis diagnosed? 
At Charleston GI, our gastroenterologists utilize the following diagnostic tests:

  • Fecal fat test
  • Serum amylase
  • Serum IgG4 (for diagnosing autoimmune pancreatitis)
  • Serum lipase
  • Serum trypsinogen

Can chronic pancreatitis be cured? 
While there is no cure for chronic pancreatitis, medication can be used to manage pain. Keep in mind that, because this gastrointestinal condition is linked to alcohol consumption, it is best to abstain. Surgery may also be an option.

Is chronic pancreatitis fatal? 
In some cases, yes. Some chronic pancreatitis sufferers die from surgical complications or pancreatic cancer that result from their condition.

What happens if you keep drinking alcohol after being diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis?
If you have been diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis, your GI specialist will strongly discourage you from drinking alcohol. Not taking their advice could damage your pancreas further, cause pain, and even decreases your lifespan. It also boosts the chances of developing dangerous complications, such as diabetes.

Does chronic pancreatitis cause diarrhea? 
Yes, diarrhea is a symptom of chronic pancreatitis. Other symptoms include upper abdominal pain and vomiting. 

What is the difference between acute pancreatitis and chronic pancreatitis?
Both conditions refer to pancreatic inflammation, but differ on the length of time that symptoms last. Acute pancreatitis refers to an isolated episode, often linked to alcohol abuse or biliary stones. Pancreatitis is considered chronic when symptoms do not improve over time. 

What is the life expectancy of someone with chronic pancreatitis?
Up to 80% of chronic pancreatitis patients will live at least ten years past their diagnosis.

Can chronic pancreatitis turn into pancreatitis cancer? 
Chronic pancreatitis can increase your chance of developing pancreatic cancer. Research reveals that, five years post-diagnosis, chronic pancreatitis patients’ risk increases eight-fold. 

Who is at risk for chronic pancreatitis?
Alcohol abuse is a risk factor, increasing heavy drinkers’ odds of developing chronic pancreatitis. Family history can also play a role. Chronic pancreatitis most commonly occurs in people between the ages of 30 and 40, affecting men more often than women.

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