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Pancreas: Function, Location & Diseases

abdomen, pancreas, anatomy
The pancreas is located deep inside the abdomen.
Credit: Sebastian Kaulitzki

The pancreas is an abdominal organ that is part of the digestive system and the endocrine system. It is about 6 inches (15.24 centimeters) long, oblong, and flat, sometimes being described as “j-shaped.” It is a glandular organ made up of a system of ducts. It functions as both an endocrine and exocrine gland. The two diseases primarily associated with the pancreas are pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer. The organ is also associated with diabetes.

Function of the pancreas

The pancreas serves two primary functions. Its endocrine function is to produce the hormones insulin and glucagon. Insulin helps the body absorb glucose that is present in the blood, lowering blood sugar levels and allowing the body’s cells to use glucose for energy. Insulin is released after eating protein and especially after eating carbohydrates, which increase glucose levels in the blood. If the pancreas does not produce sufficient insulin, type 1 diabetes will develop.

Unlike insulin, glucagon raises blood sugar levels. The important combination of insulin and glucagon maintains the proper level of sugar in the blood.

The pancreas’ second, exocrine function is to produce and release digestive fluids. After food enters the stomach, digestive enzymes called pancreatic juice travel through several small ducts to the main pancreatic duct and then to the bile duct. The bile duct takes the juice to the gallbladder, where it mixes with bile to aid in digestion.

Location of the pancreas

The pancreas is located in the middle of the abdomen and is surrounded by the stomach, liver, spleen, gallbladder and small intestine. It is located deep inside the abdomen.

The right end of the pancreas is wide and called the head. From the head, the organ tapers to the left. The middle sections are called the neck and body, while the narrow end on the left side of the body is called the tail. The portion of the pancreas called the uncinate process bends backward from the head and underneath the body.

Pancreas pain

Intense pancreatic pain is usually associated with acute pancreatitis. It may also be caused by an enlarged pancreas. It can be hard to identify pancreas pain, and many people assume that it is a stomach issue. Other signs that the pain may be pancreatic include jaundice, itchy skin and unexplained weight loss. If you are experiencing pancreas pain, consult your doctor.

Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas. It can be acute or chronic, and both forms are quite serious and can lead to health complications.

Chronic pancreatitis: Causes, symptoms and treatment

This chronic condition is usually the result of heavy alcohol consumption. Other causes may be cystic fibrosis, high levels of calcium or fat in the blood and autoimmune disorders. Chronic pancreatitis does not heal and tends to worsen with time. It usually leads to permanent damage.

Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, weight loss, and oily stools.

Treatment can include a special diet, regular consumption of enzyme supplements and hospital stays with IV use. It is important not to smoke or drink if you have chronic pancreatitis.

Acute pancreatitis: Causes, symptoms and treatment

Acute pancreatitis usually comes on suddenly and disappears within a few days of treatment. Often, it is caused by gallstones.

Pancreas pain is the chief symptom of acute pancreatitis. The pain is usually severe and sudden. It increases in severity until it becomes a constant ache. This pancreas pain is felt in the upper abdomen and radiates through to the back. Other symptoms of acute pancreatitis include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Treatment for acute pancreatitis usually includes a short hospital stay during which IV fluids, antibiotics and pain relievers are administered. Patients often don’t eat during the hospital stay. If the acute pancreatitis was caused by gallstones, doctors may recommend removing the gallbladder.

Pancreatic cancer

Due to the pancreas’ deep-in-the-abdomen location, tumors cannot usually be felt by touch. It is hard to diagnose pancreatic cancer early. Usually, there are no symptoms until the cancer grows to a state where it can interfere with other organs’ functioning. Because of the difficulty of early diagnosis and the rapidity with which pancreatic cancer spreads, the prognosis is often poor.

Risk factors for pancreatic cancer include smoking, long-term diabetes, and chronic pancreatitis.

Pancreatic cancer usually begins in the cells that produce pancreatic (digestive) juices or in the cells that line the ducts. In rare occasions, pancreatic cancer will begin in the cells that produce hormones.

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer include upper abdominal pain that radiates to the back and neck, weight loss, fatigue, yellowing skin and eyes (jaundice), depression and blood clots.

To diagnose pancreatic cancer, doctors typically conduct physical exams, blood tests, imaging tests and biopsies. Treatment options include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and therapies targeted to attack cancer cells without harming normal cells.

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