Alcohol and the pancreas.

S. Schenker, R. Montalvo

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

39 Scopus citations


Alcoholic pancreatitis may be one of the most serious adverse consequences of alcohol abuse. Its diagnosis, as it has for many years, depends primarily on clinical acumen in interpreting properly the symptoms and signs of abdominal distress, buttressed by elevated pancreatic enzymes (amylase and lipase). More recently, the use of computerized tomography (CT) in selected situations has been both of confirmatory and prognostic value. Severity of abnormality by CT correlates reasonably well with a variety of clinical-laboratory clusters (APACHE system, Ranson's criteria, etc.) and aids in therapy. The pathogenesis of alcoholic pancreatitis is not fully defined. The ultimate picture is one of tissue autolysis by activated proteolytic enzymes. The triggers for such activation, however, are still not known. They are represented by three main theories: (1) large duct obstruction and/or increased permeability relative to pancreatic secretion, (2) small duct obstruction due to proteinaceous precipitates, and (3) a direct toxic-metabolic effect of ethanol on pancreatic acinar cells. While not mutually exclusive, we favor the last hypothesis as being most consistent with the effects of ethanol on other organ systems. The direct effects of ethanol and/or its metabolites may be mediated, at least in part, via oxidative stress or the generation of fatty acid ethyl esters. Autolysis (regardless of proximate mechanism(s)) leads to inflammation likely mediated via release of various cytokines. It also should be appreciated that "acute" pancreatitis (the topic of this chapter) likely represents an acute process within a chronic pancreatic exposure and injury from alcoholic abuse. The key question of why pancreatitis develops in only a small number of alcohol abusers is not resolved. Therapy depends on the severity of alcoholic pancreatitis, which is defined by clinical-laboratory and often CT criteria. Mild pancreatitis usually resolves acutely with alcohol abstention and supportive therapy. Severe pancreatitis has a significant morbidity and mortality, mainly related to the degree of pancreatic necrosis and infection. It requires meticulous combined medical-surgical care.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)41-65
Number of pages25
JournalRecent developments in alcoholism : an official publication of the American Medical Society on Alcoholism, the Research Society on Alcoholism, and the National Council on Alcoholism
StatePublished - 1998
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine(all)


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