This article was last reviewed on
This article waslast modified on October 21, 2019.
What is the pancreas?

The pancreas is a narrow, flat gland about six inches long located deep in your abdominal cavity, behind the stomach and below the liver. It has head, middle, and tail sections. Its head section connects to the first part of the small intestine (duodenum).

  • Inside the pancreas, small ducts (tubes) feed digestive enzymes and bicarbonate produced by the pancreas into the pancreatic duct. This large duct carries the digestive enzymes and bicarbonate down the length of the pancreas, from the tail to the head section, and into the duodenum.
  • The common bile duct also runs through the head section of the pancreas, carrying bile from the liver and gallbladder into the small intestine.
  • The bile duct and pancreatic duct usually join just before entering the duodenum and share a common opening into the small intestine.

The pancreas consists of two kinds of tissues that perform different functions:

  • The exocrine pancreas makes, stores and releases powerful enzymes to digest fats, proteins, and carbohydrates in the small intestine. The enzymes normally are produced and carried in an inactive form to the small intestine, where the enzymes are activated as needed. Exocrine tissues also make and release bicarbonate that neutralizes stomach acids and allows for the activation of pancreatic enzymes.
  • The endocrine pancreas produces hormones, including insulin and glucagon, and releases them into the blood. These hormones regulate sugar (glucose) transport into the body's cells, where it is used for energy and to help maintain normal blood sugar levels.

Common Diseases of the Pancreas

Pancreatitis
Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas. It occurs when digestive enzymes become activated while still inside your pancreas, causing irritation and injury to pancreatic tissue and leading to inflammation.

Pancreatitis can be acute or chronic:

  • In acute pancreatitis, inflammation develops quickly and then goes away after a few days to weeks. Your pancreas returns to normal once it has healed. The main causes are gallstones and long-term alcohol abuse. Repeated bouts of acute pancreatitis can lead to chronic pancreatitis.
  • Chronic pancreatitis is long-lasting inflammation in the pancreas. It can lead to the formation of scar tissue in the gland that keeps it from working properly. Long-term alcohol abuse is the main cause of chronic pancreatitis. If you smoke cigarettes, you are also at increased risk for the condition.

Read the article on Pancreatitis for additional information.

Pancreatic Cancer
Pancreatic cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the pancreas. The cancerous cells form malignant tumors, which damage tissue, and keep the pancreas from working the way it should.

Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in men and women in the United States. According to the American Cancer Society, nearly 57,000 Americans are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year, and about 46,000 die from it. It is slightly more common in men than in women.

Most pancreatic cancers (about 95%) begin in exocrine cells that make up the glands and ducts in the pancreas. Pancreatic cancer is very difficult to detect in the early stages because symptoms are either absent or nonspecific.

For more details, see the Pancreatic Cancer article.

Pancreatic Insufficiency
Pancreatic insufficiency is a condition in which the pancreas is not able to produce and/or transport enough digestive enzymes to break down food in the intestine. This condition is also known as exocrine pancreatic insufficiency or EPI.

EPI typically occurs as a result of ongoing (progressive) pancreatic damage, which can be caused by a variety of conditions. It is most often associated with cystic fibrosis in children and with chronic pancreatitis in adults. Less often, it results from pancreatic cancer.

Read the article on Pancreatic Insufficiency for more information.

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Gregory C. Sephel. Lab Tests Online adjunct board member.