What causes pancreatitis?
There are a number of causes of acute pancreatitis. The most common, however, are gallbladder disease and alcoholism. These two diseases are responsible for more than 80% of all hospitalizations for acute pancreatitis.
Heavy alcohol use over many years is a leading cause of chronic pancreatitis. Excessive alcohol may also cause an acute attack. Why some people get the disease while most don't is uncertain. It's also unclear how alcohol damages the pancreas. One theory is that excessive alcohol leads to protein plugs - precursors to small stones - that form in the pancreas and block parts of the pancreatic duct.
Another theory is that alcohol directly injures pancreatic tissues. Gallstones form from a buildup of material within your gallbladder, another organ in your abdomen. A gallstone can block the pancreatic duct, trapping digestive juices inside the pancreas. Pancreatitis due to gallstones tends to occur most often in women older than 50 years.
A leading cause of acute pancreatitis is gallstones. Sometimes these stones migrate out of the gallbladder through the common bile duct, which merges with the pancreatic duct near the entrance to the duodenum. At this junction, gallstones can lodge in or near the pancreatic duct and block the flow of pancreatic juices into the duodenum. Digestive enzymes become active in the pancreas instead of in the digestive tract, causing acute pancreatitis. Pancreatitis from alcohol use usually occurs in men who have been chronic alcohol drinkers for at least 5-7 years. Most chronic pancreatitis is due to alcohol abuse. It is often already chronic the first time the person seeks medical attention (usually for severe pain).
Other conditions that may lead to acute pancreatitis include calcium deposits or stones that can block the pancreatic or common bile duct, increased levels of blood fats (triglycerides) or of calcium in the blood (hypercalcemia), structural abnormalities of the pancreas, abdominal trauma or major surgery, bacterial or viral infection, such as the mumps.
A complication of acute pancreatitis, such as narrowing of the pancreatic duct, can lead to chronic pancreatitis. Sometimes, young adults with cystic fibrosis and associated gene abnormalities develop episodes of chronic pancreatitis. Some people are born with a hereditary form of the disease that can cause attacks in childhood or adolescence.