Towards a neurobiological understanding of pain in chronic pancreatitis: mechanisms and implications for treatment

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Abstract

Introduction:

Chronic pancreatitis (CP) is a disease characterized by inflammation of the pancreas resulting in replacement of the normal functioning parenchyma by fibrotic connective tissue. This process leads to progressively impairment of exocrine and endocrine function and many patients develop a chronic pain syndrome.

Objectives:

We aimed to characterize the neurobiological signature of pain associated with CP and to discuss its implications for treatment strategies.

Methods:

Relevant basic and clinical articles were selected for review following an extensive search of the literature.

Results:

Pathophysiological changes in the peripheral (pancreatic gland) and central nervous system characterize the pain syndrome associated with CP; involved mechanisms can be broken down to 3 main branches: (1) peripheral sensitization, (2) pancreatic neuropathy, and (3) neuroplastic changes in the central pain pathways. Disease flares (recurrent pancreatitis) may accelerate the pathophysiological process and further sensitize the pain system, which ultimately results in an autonomous and self-perpetuating pain state that may become independent of the peripheral nociceptive drive. These findings share many similarities with those observed in neuropathic pain disorders and have important implications for treatment; adjuvant analgesics are effective in a subset of patients, and neuromodulation and neuropsychological interventions may prove useful in the future.

Conclusion:

Chronic pancreatitis is associated with abnormal processing of pain at the peripheral and central level of the pain system. This neurobiological understanding of pain has important clinical implications for treatment and prevention of pain chronification.

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