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Pancreas anatomy: How this organ plays a key role in your body.

Key takeaways:

  • Your pancreas is situated in your abdomen, right behind your stomach.
  • An accessory organ, the pancreas directly connects to other organs in your digestive system.
  • Your pancreas helps your digestive system by producing enzymes from the exocrine gland and hormones from the endocrine gland.
  • If your pancreas is unwell, it can affect your entire body.

You might be wondering about your pancreas’ anatomy and function if you are experiencing health issues relating to your pancreas. For example, if your medical practitioner has diagnosed you with EPI or a more serious illness like pancreatic cancer, you may want to learn more. 

Your pancreas is an integral part of your digestive system. It performs numerous endocrine functions and exocrine functions that our body needs to process carbohydrates, fats, and sugars.

The pancreas is behind the stomach in the upper left abdomen. It’s about six to nine inches long, weighs about 90 grams, is spongy and bumpy on the surface, and is shaped like a long, sideways eggplant.

If your pancreas is not functioning properly, it can affect your body’s ability to digest food and use nutrients, your reproductive system, your sexual function, your body’s natural secretions, and more. 

Pancreas terminology.

pancreas anatomy: Diagram showing the parts of the pancreas

Prepare yourself for a quick anatomy lesson: To truly explain pancreas anatomy, we need to review these technical keywords.

  • Head of the pancreas: The head is the bulbous part of the pancreas containing the pancreatic duct and distal common bile duct.
  • Uncinate process: This is the small, hooked portion of the pancreas. This is an extension of the pancreatic head found behind the superior mesenteric artery.
  • Neck of the pancreas: This portion is anterior to (behind) the portal vein and is located at the beginning of the middle section of the pancreas. 
  • Tail of the pancreas: The tail is the skinny end of the pancreas, which extends to the splenic hilum.
  • Duodenum: This is the first part of the small intestine immediately beyond the stomach, leading to the jejunum.
  • Jejunum: The jejunum is the middle part of the small intestine. It helps to further digest food coming from the stomach.
  • Bile ducts: Ducts are a series of thin tubes that go from the liver to the small intestines. The bile ducts move bile from the liver and the gallbladder to the duodenum.
  • Common bile duct: This duct starts in the liver and the gallbladder and produces another necessary digestive juice called bile.
  • Pancreatic bile ducts: These join the pancreas to the common bile duct. They supply pancreatic juice from the exocrine pancreas, which helps digestion.
  • Ampulla of Vater: This is a small opening that enters the first part of the small intestine, located near the right of the pancreatic head. This is where the pancreatic and bile ducts release their secretions into the intestines.
  • Portal vein: This is the main vessel of the portal venous system (PVS), which drains the blood from the gastrointestinal tract, gallbladder, pancreas, and spleen to the liver.
  • Aorta: A blood vessel that resides behind the pancreas. This is one of many vessels near the pancreas, including the splenic vein, and the left renal vein, as well as the beginning of the superior mesenteric artery.
  • Pancreatic duct: Joins the pancreas to the common bile duct. This supplies it with pancreatic juice from the exocrine pancreas, which aids digestion.
  • Pancreatic parenchyma: This is the main pancreatic duct (Wirsung), which is the functional tissue of this organ. It spans from the tail to the head inside the entire pancreas.

The function of the pancreas.

pancreas anatomy: Smiling woman relaxing on a couch with her hands behind her head

The pancreas is an important organ for hormonal and digestive purposes. Pancreatic enzymes and hormones play several roles:

  • They break down sugars, starches, and fats in the food you eat.
  • They help protect you from unwanted bacteria or excess yeast that may live in your intestines.
  • They help stabilize your glucose (blood sugar) levels.
  • They regulate your appetite.
  • They stimulate the acids in your stomach.
  • They signal your stomach is empty.

The pancreas helps with both endocrine functions and exocrine functions.

  • Endocrine glands secrete hormones or other products directly into the blood.
  • Exocrine glands secrete their products through ducts opening onto an epithelium rather than directly into the bloodstream, keeping waste from entering it.

As part of the endocrine system, your pancreas releases hormones that help regulate blood sugar and your appetite, among other things. These hormones are sometimes referred to as chemical “messengers.” They move through your blood, triggering various bodily functions such as metabolism and breathing, sensory perception, sexual development, reproduction, and human growth.

As part of the exocrine system, the pancreas secretes enzymes that break down food so that it can nourish your body. After the stomach empties partially digested food into the intestine, the pancreas releases these digestive enzymes and hormones to help process it. These enzymes include:

  • Trypsin and chymotrypsin: These digest proteins.
  • Amylase: This enzyme digests carbohydrates.
  • Lipase: Your body uses this to break down fats.  

How the pancreas helps with hormone production.

The pancreas makes hormones that control blood glucose levels, but that’s not all. It produces hormones that help with a number of important body functions, from growth hormones to reproduction and even breathing. 

Pancreatic islets, also called islets of Langerhans, are clusters of cells in your pancreas. As the name implies, these are groups—or “islands”—of cells. 

Each of these contains four types of cells:

  • The alpha cell produces the hormone glucagon. Low glucose levels in your blood stimulate this hormone’s release. The alpha cell accounts for about 20 percent of each islet. 
  • The beta-cell produces insulin. When your glucose levels are high, insulin is released to help lower your blood sugar. The beta-cell accounts for about 75 percent of every islet.
  • The delta cell secretes the peptide hormone somatostatin. An inhibiting hormone, pancreatic somatostatin, slows down the release of both glucagon and insulin. Somatostatin also comes from the hypothalamus, stomach, and intestines.
  • The pancreatic polypeptide cell (PP cell) secretes the pancreatic polypeptide hormone. Scientists think it affects appetite as it is released in response to fasting. It also has a role in the regulation of pancreatic exocrine and endocrine secretions. The PP-cells are commonly regarded as the fourth most prevalent endocrine cell type in the islets, making up just one percent.

How pancreas anatomy helps your digestion.

The pancreas plays a key role in digestion. Part of that is due to pancreatic juice, which includes these two things: 

  • Digestive enzymes: These are chemicals that help digest food. They’re produced by the exocrine acinar cells, which are secreted by the duodenum. 
  • Bicarbonate: Bicarbonate is a form of carbon dioxide (CO2), a gas waste that is left after your body burns food for energy. It’s secreted from the small pancreatic ducts. Bicarbonate helps keep your body hydrated and make sure your blood has the right amount of acidity

Pancreatic exocrine cells exist in grape-like clusters called acini. The exocrine cells themselves are packed with granules that contain digestive enzymes. 

From there, these secretions flow into increasingly larger excretory ducts, which eventually merge into the main pancreatic duct. This goes directly into the duodenum.

Challenges to the pancreatic function.

pancreas anatomy: Young couple dancing in their kitchen

If you have a pancreatic disease, your overall health can be adversely affected. For example, if it doesn’t produce enough digestive enzymes, your body won’t adequately break down or absorb your food. This can lead to low absorption of nutrients, weight loss, and a shortage of vitamins.

As previously mentioned, the pancreas helps regulate glucose, which produces insulin. If you don’t have enough insulin, your risk of developing diabetes increases.  

Many diseases and conditions can affect your pancreas. Let’s take a look at the more common pancreatic illnesses. 

Pancreatitis.

Pancreatitis is when your pancreas is inflamed. There are three main types of inflammatory pancreatic disease: acute, chronic, and hereditary. Pancreatitis can damage your pancreas if it becomes chronic. Treatments can range from no longer drinking alcohol or smoking to using pancreatic enzymes and even getting surgery. If you think you have pancreatitis, consult with a medical professional right away.

Acute pancreatitis 

Acute pancreatitis comes on suddenly and causes severe stomach pain. Other symptoms include diarrhea, bloating, nausea, vomiting, and fever.

This inflammatory disease can be caused by numerous conditions such as:

  • Trauma
  • Infection
  • Some medications
  • Excess and chronic alcohol consumption
  • Gallstones
  • Chronic pancreatitis

Chronic pancreatitis

Symptoms of chronic pancreatitis may include severe abdominal pain, diarrhea, and weight loss. As the disease progresses, it damages the pancreas irreversibly. 

Among other things, causes of chronic pancreatitis include:

  • Chronic alcohol abuse
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Hereditary pancreas disorders

Chronic pancreatitis is progressive, and about 20% of cases can lead to exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI).

Hereditary pancreatitis

Hereditary pancreatitis is a genetic condition that includes recurrent episodes of pancreatic inflammation. Sometimes this is because of genetic mutations, including mutations of PRSS1, SPINK1, and CFTR genes.

Hereditary pancreatitis is a progressive disease, meaning it gets worse over time. 

Pancreatic cancer.

There are a few early signs of pancreatic cancer, including abdominal or back pain, weight loss, jaundice, changes in stools, and pancreatitis. 

However, this type of cancer often doesn’t show symptoms until the disease has already progressed significantly, often to stage 4. Because of this, pancreatic cancer is one of the most lethal kinds of cancer. 

The risk for pancreatic cancer is higher for people whose immediate family members have had the disease and those who have any genetic mutations, including a mutation in the BRCA2 gene, more commonly associated with breast cancer. 

At Ezra, we know that early detection is the best defense against cancer, which is why we encourage annual full-body MRI scans.

Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI).

EPI means you’re deficient in pancreatic enzymes to the point where you’re malnourished.

With EPI, your body doesn’t have enough of the pancreatic enzymes needed to break down the food you eat. As a result, EPI affects how your body digests food, causes extreme gastrointestinal symptoms and could stop you from getting enough nutrition from the foods you eat.

Issues that can cause EPI include:

  • Pancreatitis
  • Cysts or benign tumors of the pancreas
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Side effects after pancreatic surgery
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Diabetes

Treatments range from adjusting your diet, pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT), and pain management. If you have EPI, talk with a medical professional about the best course of action for you.

Symptoms of a diseased or malfunctioning pancreas.

Man reading a book

If your pancreas isn’t working for you as it should, you’ll probably have at least some of the following signs and symptoms:

  • Extreme thirst
  • Exhaustion with no apparent cause
  • Weight loss 
  • Frequent urination
  • Blurred vision
  • Tingling sensations in your extremities
  • Swollen gums
  • Tenderness, swelling, or pain in your abdomen
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Excess gas, diarrhea, or unusually foul-smelling stools or light-colored stools
  • Unexplained fever

Preventative measures for pancreatic health.

Excessive alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking can put your pancreas at risk. To keep your pancreas healthy, consume foods rich in protein, low in animal fats, and contain antioxidants.

Healthy habits go a very long way toward keeping your pancreas and other organs healthy. Still, you can also improve your physical well-being by scheduling an annual screening. 

The Ezra full-body MRI scans the pancreas and 12 other organs for cancerous and precancerous conditions. You can learn more about our screening plans here.

If you think you might be at risk for pancreatic cancer or other pancreatic diseases, take Ezra’s five-minute quiz and get your risk score today.