This article was last reviewed on
This article waslast modified on 5 November 2020.
What is the pancreas?

The pancreas is a narrow, flat organ about six inches long, with a head, middle, and tail section. It is located below the liver, between the stomach and the spine, and its head section connects to the duodenum (first part of the small intestine). Inside the pancreas, small ducts (tubes) feed fluids produced by the pancreas into the pancreatic duct. This larger duct carries the fluids down the length of the pancreas, from the tail to the head, and into the duodenum. The common bile duct also runs through the head section of the pancreas, carrying bile from the liver and gall bladder into the small intestine.

The pancreas consists of two kinds of tissue:

  • Exocrine  tissue which makes powerful enzymes to digest fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. The enzymes normally are created and carried to the duodenum in an inactive form, then activated as needed. Exocrine tissue also makes bicarbonate that neutralises stomach acids.
  • Endocrine tissue which produces the hormones insulin and glucagon and releases them into the blood stream. These hormones regulate glucose transport into the body's cells and are crucial for energy production


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About Pancreatic Diseases
  • Common Diseases of the Pancreas

    Acute Pancreatitis
    The most common cause of acute pancreatitis is blockage of the pancreatic duct by a gallstone. Secretions can back up in the pancreas and cause permanent damage in just a few hours. They also can circulate to other body organs, causing shock and organ failure. Acute pancreatitis can be life-threatening

    Chronic Pancreatitis
    Chronic pancreatitis, associated most often with alcoholism, can cause painful attacks over a number of years and lead to other problems such as pancreatic insufficiency (see below), bacterial infections, and type 2 diabetes

    Type 1 diabetes involves destruction of pancreatic beta cells which produce insulin and a dependence on treatment with insulin; type 2 involves loss of some beta cell function and insulin resistance; treatment is usually with diet and tablets. Diabetes affects many other body organs, especially the kidneys

    Cystic Fibrosis
    CF is an inherited genetic disorder that disrupts chloride transport at the cellular level. This causes mucous plugs that block pancreatic enzymes from reaching the intestines and leads to digestive problems.

    Pancreatic Cancer
    Cancer of the pancreas is thought to be the tenth most common cause of cancer death in the UK, being diagnosed in about 8,800 people a year. Risks include smoking, age, chronic pancreatitis and exposure to some industrial chemicals. Most (around 95%) pancreatic cancers are adenocarcinomas, developing in the exocrine tissues. Pancreatic cancer is very difficult to detect in the early stages because symptoms are either absent or non-specific: abdominal pain, nausea, loss of appetite and sometimes jaundice. Only about 10% of the cancers are still contained within the pancreas at the time of diagnosis