Magnesium deficiency is a common clinical condition that may exist despite a normal serum magnesium concentration. Patients with chronic pancreatitis could develop magnesium deficiency due to either malabsorption, diabetes mellitus, or chronic alcoholism. Since serum levels of magnesium are a poor indicator of magnesium deficiency, the retention of a low-dose intravenous magnesium load (0.1 mmol/kg body weight) was determined in 13 patients with chronic pancreatitis (10 due to alcoholism) and eight healthy controls. Percentage magnesium retention was greater in patients with chronic pancreatitis than controls (59.8+/-37.3% S.D. versus 22.0+/-38.2% S. D.: P=0.038), and 10 of 13 patients showed evidence of magnesium deficiency. Routine evaluation of magnesium status could allow appropriate supplementation and conceivably symptomatic improvement in patients with severe chronic pancreatitis.