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What causes pancreatitis?

The pancreas makes enzymes to help digest food, and hormones like insulin to help the body process the sugars and fats in the digested food. It sends these hormones into the bloodstream and sends the enzymes into the gut.

Pancreatitis occurs when there is inflammation in the pancreas that may cause swelling, bleeding, and damage to the organ and its blood vessels. This may cause a leakage of the pancreas enzymes into surrounding tissue and cause more damage.

The two most common causes of pancreatitis are gallstones and heavy drinking of alcohol. Around half of all people with acute pancreatitis have been heavy drinkers, which makes alcohol consumption one of the most common causes.

Gallstones cause most of the remaining cases. Gallstones are little pebble-like formations in the gall bladder which is next to the pancreas.The gallbladder and the pancreas both help to digest food and share a common entry tube(duct) to the gut. The stones can block the entry tube (duct) from the pancreas, so the enzymes can’t escape which causes the inflammation.

Other less common causes of pancreatitis include:

  • a heavy blow to the abdomen, such as in a car accident
  • surgery to the pancreas
  • some medicines
  • inherited disorders
  • infections
  • autoimmune disease, such as lupus
  • cystic fibrosis or mutations of the cystic fibrosis gene.

In some people, no cause is ever found.

Last reviewed: November 2016

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Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas, which can either be acute (sudden and severe) or chronic (ongoing). The pancreas is a gland that secretes both digestive enzymes and important hormones. Heavy alcohol consumption is one of the most common causes of chronic pancreatitis, followed by gallstones.

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