Causes of and Treatment Options for Pancreas Pain with Cystic Fibrosis

Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a genetic disorder that affects mucus production. CF affects the pancreas, a small gland that secretes hormones and enzymes that control blood sugars, digestion, and other bodily functions. Some patients with CF are at an increased risk for pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas.

This can cause pancreas pain, abdominal pain, and other symptoms and is the most common gastrointestinal complication of CF.

This article covers pancreas pain associated with cystic fibrosis, why this occurs, who is affected, and how to get relief.

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Up to 90% of people with CF have pancreatic insufficiency, a condition where there are not enough digestive enzymes in the small intestine. But about 10% of CF patients have normal pancreas function, and they are actually at increased risk for pancreatitis. About 20% of those with normal pancreas function will develop chronic pancreatitis.


The primary cause of pancreas pain in people with CF is pancreatitis. This condition occurs when the pancreas becomes inflamed. In people with CF, this inflammation happens because thick mucus blocks the ducts in the pancreas.

Most people with CF who develop pancreatitis have chronic pancreatitis. Chronic pancreatitis symptoms include:

  • Upper abdominal pain
  • Weight loss
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Oily, fatty, clay-colored or pale stools

In addition to pancreatitis, people with CF can experience generalized abdominal pain. That’s because the pancreas may not make enough enzymes to neutralize stomach acid. That leads to pain, gas, and bloating. This pain can occur in people with pancreatic insufficiency or with normal pancreas function.

When to See a Healthcare Provider 

You should see your healthcare provider if you experience unexplained abdominal pain. Your primary care provider and existing CF treatment team are a good place to start. Ultimately you’ll want to see a gastroenterologist who is experienced in working with patients with CF.

Many people with CF struggle to maintain a healthy weight and get enough nutrition. Pancreatitis can compound this, since it causes weight loss, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Thus, patients with CF who experience abdominal pain should talk to their healthcare provider. 

Managing pancreatitis is also a quality-of-life issue. No one deserves to live with chronic pain, and working with a healthcare team can help you manage the pain caused by pancreatitis. 


Your healthcare provider will likely make a preliminary diagnosis of pancreatitis based on your symptoms, including pancreas and abdominal pain.

Blood work can help confirm a diagnosis of pancreatitis, since levels of certain digestive enzymes are higher when the pancreas is inflamed. However, these enzymes are not always elevated in chronic pancreatitis.


The treatment for chronic pancreatitis in people with CF is the same as treatment in people without CF. People with chronic pancreatitis should avoid smoking and alcohol use. Eating a high-protein, high-calorie diet can also help.

Medications are also available to help treat and manage the pain associated with chronic pancreatitis. Enzyme therapy can reduce pain and diarrhea. It can also help with weight gain. Oral pain relievers can also be used to manage the pain of an attack. If oral pain relievers don't work, your healthcare provider might suggest a nerve block.

Surgery is also another treatment option. The surgeries below may be considered:

  • Puestow procedure: Also known as a longitudinal pancreaticojejunostomy, this is a procedure to unblock the ducts of the pancreas. 
  • Endoscopic pancreatic sphincterotomy: This surgery allows your healthcare provider to reduce pressure on the ducts in the pancreas through placing stents and other means.
  • Whipple procedure: Also known as a pancreaticoduodenectomy, this procedure removes part of the pancreas and parts of other areas of the digestive tract. 
  • Pancreatectomy: This is a surgical removal of the pancreas. It’s paired with an auto islet transplant to help your body produce insulin. Alternatively, your healthcare provider may suggest a distal pancreatectomy, which removes only part of the pancreas.


Some of the risk for pancreatitis is unavoidable for certain patients with CF. However, researchers believe that other risk factors, including drinking alcohol, smoking, and obesity compound the risk for pancreatitis in people with CF.

Talk to your healthcare provider about abstaining from drugs and alcohol and maintaining a healthy weight.


About 2% of people with CF will develop chronic pancreatitis and pancreas pain. It’s more common among the 10% of CF patients who have normal pancreas function.

The treatment for chronic pancreatitis includes pain management, medications, and surgical options. Work with a healthcare provider who is familiar with CF and pancreatitis. 

A Word From Verywell

Living with a chronic condition like CF can be taxing. Adding another chronic complication, like pancreatitis, can add to that burden.

It’s important to remember that treatment options are available for pancreatitis associated with CF. Talk with your care team and others in your community about finding the resources you need. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can cystic fibrosis cause pancreatitis?

    Yes. Chronic pancreatitis is a rare complication of CF. It affects less than 2% of people with CF. 

  • Does cystic fibrosis affect your pancreas?

    Yes, the pancreas is heavily impacted by CF. Most people with CF have insufficient pancreas function. About 20% of people with normal pancreas function and CF develop chronic pancreatitis. 

  • Does CF affect the treatment for pancreatitis?

    The treatment for pancreatitis is the same for people with and without CF. It involves medication, lifestyle changes, and possibly surgery. 

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. How is the pancreas affected by cystic fibrosis?

  2. CF Source. Impact on other parts of the body.

  3. Freeman AJ, Ooi CY. Pancreatitis and pancreatic cystosis in Cystic Fibrosis. Journal of Cystic Fibrosis. doi: 10.1016/j.jcf.2017.07.004

  4. Johns Hopkins Cystic Fibrosis Center. Effects of CF.

By Kelly Burch
Kelly Burch is has written about health topics for more than a decade. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and more.