The Anatomy of the Pancreas (2023)

Located in the upper abdomen between the spleen and the duodenum (the uppermost section of the small intestine just past the stomach) in, the pancreas is an important digestive and endocrine organ. Serving this dual function, it’s made up of two kinds of glands: exocrine and endocrine. The former of these produce enzymes for digestion, while the latter contribute hormones to the bloodstream. It has an elongated shape that tapers from widest to narrowest as it goes from right to left, resembling a single quotation mark that’s been rotated 90 degrees to the left.

Diseases or disorders of the pancreas can be dangerous, disruptive, and require serious medical attention. The most common of these are pancreatitis (an inflammation of this organ), pancreatic cancer, and perforation (in which digestive enzymes cause holes in the surface). Notably, pancreas function can become severely impacted by diabetes mellitus types I and II, which impact insulin production.

The Anatomy of the Pancreas (1)

Anatomy

Structure

The pancreas is an elongated organ that’s approximately 15 centimeters (cm) long and has a tapered shape. Anatomically speaking, it’s divided into four sections:

  • Head: The head of the pancreas is, as the name implies, the widest portion of the organ. It lies against the descending and horizontal portions of the duodenum, which has a C-shape. Projecting downward from the left, at lateral border is the uncinate process, a small portion of the organ that joins with the superior mesenteric vein. This section also has a bile duct, which plays a role in digestion.
  • Neck: Usually measuring only about 2 cm, the neck of the pancreas connects the head with the body.
  • Body: Widening after the neck, the body of the pancreas crosses the center of the body, with its front portion enclosed in the peritoneum (the dense layer of tissue that surrounds the abdomen), and its rear touching the aorta, the superior mesenteric artery, and left kidney, among other anatomical structures.
  • Tail: The narrowing end of the pancreas represents its tail, which lies just in front of the left kidney. It’s here that you find the primary pancreatic duct that secretes insulin and digestive enzymes.

Notably, the pancreas is composed of two different types of cells, and these determine a great deal about its function. Approximately 80% of the organ is composed of exocrine pancreatic tissue, which is made of specialized cells called “pancreatic acini.” These produce enzymes that combine with bile to serve in digestion. Most of the remaining cells are endocrine cells, and make up portions of the pancreas called “islets of Langerhans;” these are associated with hormone production that can access the bloodstream directly.

It’s also important to understand the pancreas’s system of ducts as these are essential to its function. Along the length of the organ—from head to tail—is the main pancreatic duct (also known as the “Wirsung duct”), which connects with the bile duct in the head to form the ampulla of Vater, which opens into the duodenum. Movement of bile through this duct is regulated by a smooth muscle structure called the sphincter of Oddi, which prevents material from the intestines from accessing the pancreas. The other ducts also have sphincters that control the outflow of hormones and enzymes.

Location

The pancreas sits in the upper abdomen, at the level of the L1 and L2 vertebrae of the lower back, and it slants slightly as it moves across the posterior abdominal wall. To its right is the duodenum, which wraps around the head of the pancreas, and to its left is the spleen. It sits in front of the left kidney, the left suprarenal gland (which produces hormones such as adrenaline) and aorta, and just below and behind the stomach. The pancreas is what’s called a “retroperitoneal” organ, meaning the peritoneum—an abdominal membrane—is to its front.

Anatomical Variations

Most variations in the anatomy of the pancreas have to do with its system of ducts. It’s important to note that these cases are relatively rare, as approximately 95% of people do not display any variants. By far the most commonly observed of these is a condition called “pancreas divisum,” in which there is abnormal or absent fusion of pancreatic ducts, a case which is estimated to affect between 3% and 14% of the general population. Furthermore, in about 3% to 5% of cases, pancreatic tissue is erroneously found in the stomach or small intestine, though this rarely leads to health problems.

(Video) The Role and Anatomy of the Pancreas

In much rarer cases, doctors have observed a couple other kinds of variants. These include “ansa pancreatica,” in which the main pancreatic duct and the accessory pancreatic duct are erroneously connected, as well as annular pancreas, wherein the shape of the organ is different, and a ring of pancreatic tissue surrounds the duodenum. In addition, the pancreas can be subject to “duplication anomalies,” in which the main duct is duplicated, which can lead to health problems.

Function

What makes the pancreas unique is that it serves both exocrine and endocrine functions. The former of these means that this organ releases important digestive enzymes to other organs, and in that capacity, it synthesizes and delivers zymogen, an inactivated enzyme, to the duodenum of the small intestine. This substance is activated as it leaves the pancreas by proteolytic enzymes and is converted into several different active digestive substances, including active peptidases, amylases, lipases and nucleases, all of which help break down food coming from the stomach.

The endocrine function of this organ involves secreting two hormones directly into the bloodstream from the islets of Langerhans. These are insulin and glucagon, which are primarily involved in regulating sugar (glucose) levels in the blood. Whenever the body has sufficient energy, insulin signals liver, muscle, and fat cells to start taking up this glucose in the blood, thereby regulating blood sugar. In contrast, glucagon prevents these levels from dropping to low, stimulating organs to produce and secrete glucose. Ensuring a proper balance here is essential for health.

Associated Conditions

The pancreas can play a role in or be affected by a number of health conditions and diseases. These include:

  • Perforation: Disorders in pancreatic structure can lead to holes in the organ, in which case digestive enzymes leak into the abdominal cavity. In turn, this can damage the pancreas, itself, as well as other organs in the area. Treatment often entails surgically removing the pancreas, which is effective but means the patient will have to take supplemental enzymes and blood glucose regulators for the rest of their life.
  • Pancreatic cancer: This kind of cancer is particularly dangerous because it is usually only caught in a very late stage. Risk factors for this condition include smoking, obesity, diabetes, as well as the presence of colon cancer. As with other types of cancer, treatments can include surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, as well as targeted work.
  • Type 1 diabetes: This is an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks cells involved in the production of insulin. It is the most common type of childhood diabetes, with a peak of incidence around puberty, although it can arise in adults as well. It leads to dangerous blood-sugar levels. As such, those with it require insulin injections to survive.
  • Type 2 diabetes: The more common form of this disease, type 2 diabetes leads to excessively elevated blood sugar levels due to insulin resistance and an impaired ability of the pancreas to secrete this hormone. Treatment for this condition ranges from ensuring changes in diet and lifestyle to taking one of a class of drugs called biguanides.
  • Pancreatitis: This disease is characterized by the inflammation of the pancreas, as a result of its being damaged by digestive enzymes; it can be acute (more temporary) or chronic. It occurs due to recurrent gallstones (mineral deposits in the gallbladder), excessive alcohol use, measles, mumps, scorpion stings, as well as deficiencies in alpha-1 antitrypsin, an important protein. As a result, patients feel constant pain in the upper abdomen that radiates to other parts of the body. In about 15% of acute cases, this leads to low blood pressure, dehydration, as well as kidney or heart failure. While milder cases can resolve on their own, treatment involves everything from taking antibiotics to surgery.

5 Sources

(Video) Pancreas Clinical Anatomy and Physiology

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. Rad A. Pancreas. Kenhub.

  2. Talathi S, Young M. Anatomy, abdomen and pelvis, pancreas.

  3. Dimitriou I, Katsourakis A, Nikolaidou E, Noussios G. The main anatomical variations of the pancreatic duct system: Review of the literature and its importance in surgical practice.J Clin Med Res. 2018;10(5):370-375. doi:10.14740/jocmr3344w

  4. Maahs DM, West NA, Lawrence JM, Mayer-Davis EJ. Epidemiology of type 1 diabetes.Endocrinol Metab Clin North Am. 2010;39(3):481–497. doi:10.1016/j.ecl.2010.05.011

  5. Aggarwal A, Manrai M, Kochhar R. Fluid resuscitation in acute pancreatitis.World J Gastroenterol. 2014;20(48):18092–18103. doi:10.3748/wjg.v20.i48.18092

    (Video) Pancreas (anatomy)

The Anatomy of the Pancreas (2)

By Mark Gurarie
Mark Gurarie is a freelance writer, editor, and adjunct lecturer of writing composition at George Washington University.

FAQs

What is the structure and function of the pancreas? ›

The pancreas is an organ located in the abdomen. It plays an essential role in converting the food we eat into fuel for the body's cells. The pancreas has two main functions: an exocrine function that helps in digestion and an endocrine function that regulates blood sugar.

What are the four main parts of the pancreas? ›

The pancreas is divided into 4 parts: head, neck, body, and tail. The head of the pancreas is the enlarged part of the gland that is surrounded by the C-shaped curve of the duodenum.

What are the 3 parts of the pancreas? ›

The pancreas has three main sections: Head: area of pancreas to right of left border of superior mesenteric vein. Body: area of pancreas between left border of superior mesenteric vein and left border of aorta. Tail: area of pancreas between left border of aorta and hilum of spleen.

What are the five parts of the pancreas? ›

It has five main parts – the tail, body, neck, head and uncinate process. The pancreas is made up of glandular tissue and a system of ducts.

What causes pancreas problems? ›

Pancreatitis is the redness and swelling (inflammation) of the pancreas. It may be sudden (acute) or ongoing (chronic). The most common causes are alcohol abuse and lumps of solid material (gallstones) in the gallbladder. The goal for treatment is to rest the pancreas and let it heal.

What are the 2 main jobs of the pancreas? ›

During digestion, your pancreas makes pancreatic juices called enzymes. These enzymes break down sugars, fats, and starches. Your pancreas also helps your digestive system by making hormones. These are chemical messengers that travel through your blood.

What 3 hormones does the pancreas produce? ›

The production of pancreatic hormones, including insulin, somatostatin, gastrin, and glucagon, play an important role in maintaining sugar and salt balance in our bodies.

What are 3 important functions of the pancreas? ›

This 6- to 10-inch long elongated organ is located in your upper left abdomen, right behind your stomach. By producing enzymes and hormones, your pancreas helps your body break down food, control your blood sugar, tell your stomach when to empty, and more.

What causes the pancreas to stop working? ›

When the pancreas becomes inflamed and stays that way for years, eventually its cells stop working the way they should, including those that can cause EPI. Many things can lead to chronic pancreatitis, including heavy alcohol use, smoking, genetic problems, and autoimmune disorders.

What are 2 disorders of the pancreas? ›

These include: Pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas: This happens when digestive enzymes start digesting the pancreas itself. Pancreatic cancer. Cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder in which thick, sticky mucus can also block tubes in your pancreas.

What's another name for pancreas? ›

Pancreas is also known as mixed gland because it is both endocrine and exocrine in nature. The islets of Langerhans functions as endocrine cells and secretes into the blood several important hormones, including insulin, glucagon, somatostatin, and pancreatic polypeptide.

What organs does the pancreas touch? ›

Your gallbladder, liver and spleen surround your pancreas. The right side of your body contains the head of your pancreas. This narrow organ lies along the first segment of your small intestine, called the duodenum. The left side of your body houses the tail of your pancreas.

What organ is behind the pancreas? ›

Transcript. The pancreas is a leaf shaped organ tucked under the liver, close to the gallbladder, stomach and bowel.

Where do you feel pancreatic pain? ›

The main symptom of pancreatitis is pain felt in the upper left side or middle of the abdomen. The pain: May be worse within minutes after eating or drinking at first, more commonly if foods have a high fat content. Becomes constant and more severe, lasting for several days.

What are signs that your pancreas is not working properly? ›

Symptoms of chronic pancreatitis

Constant pain in your upper belly that radiates to your back. This pain may be disabling. Diarrhea and weight loss because your pancreas isn't releasing enough enzymes to break down food. Upset stomach and vomiting.

What are signs of problems with your pancreas? ›

The most common symptoms are upper abdominal pain and diarrhea. As the disease becomes more chronic, patients can develop malnutrition and weight loss. If the pancreas becomes destroyed in the latter stages of the disease, patients may develop diabetes mellitus.

How do I get my pancreas back to normal? ›

The pancreas can be triggered to regenerate itself through a type of fasting diet, say US researchers. Restoring the function of the organ - which helps control blood sugar levels - reversed symptoms of diabetes in animal experiments. The study, published in the journal Cell, says the diet reboots the body.

Can you live without your pancreas? ›

Yes, you can live without a pancreas. You'll need to make a few adjustments to your life, though. Your pancreas makes substances that control your blood sugar and help your body digest foods. After surgery, you'll have to take medicines to handle these functions.

What happens when the pancreas stops working? ›

A poorly functioning pancreas can cause digestion problems and diabetes. Conditions that can lead to acute pancreatitis include: Gallstones. Alcoholism.

Who controls the pancreas? ›

The pancreas is controlled by both the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and the endocrine system. The ANS has 2 divisions: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. Nerves of the sympathetic division become active during stressful situations, emergencies, and exercise.

Do antacids help pancreatitis pain? ›

Antacids are not recommended for treated pancreatitis pain. Some research even shows that using antacids may trigger acute pancreatitis in some people. If you are considering using antacids (or any other over-the-counter medication) for your pancreatitis pain, consult with your healthcare provider first.

Which drug stimulates the pancreas to release insulin? ›

Lixisenatide injection is in a class of medications called incretin mimetics. It works by stimulating the pancreas to secrete insulin when blood sugar levels are high.

What is the most famous hormone that the pancreas produces? ›

The most important hormone that the pancreas produces is insulin. Insulin is released by the 'beta cells' in the islets of Langerhans in response to food. Its role is to lower glucose levels in the bloodstream and promote the storage of glucose in fat, muscle, liver and other body tissues.

Can my pancreas repair itself? ›

The exocrine pancreas is composed of acinar cells that synthesize and secrete digestive enzymes, ductal cells that funnel the enzymes into the small intestine, and central acinar cells. The exocrine pancreas can regenerate spontaneously and robustly in both animals and humans.

How do I keep my pancreas healthy naturally? ›

There are ways you can protect your pancreas and reduce your risk for pancreatitis and other serious health problems, such as EPI.
  1. Limit alcohol consumption. ...
  2. Eat a heart-healthy diet. ...
  3. Exercise regularly and lose excess weight. ...
  4. Skip crash diets. ...
  5. Don't smoke.
7 Apr 2022

What are 3 interesting facts about pancreas? ›

It is about 6 inches long and less than 2 inches wide. It extends across the abdomen. The pancreas is really two separate glands inside the same organ. The exocrine gland makes enzymes to break down fats and proteins in foods so the body can use them.

What medications can cause pancreatitis? ›

Class II medications (medications implicated in more than 10 cases of acute pancreatitis): rifampin, lamivudine, octreotide, carbamazepine, acetaminophen, phenformin, interferon alfa-2b, enalapril, hydrochlorothiazide, cisplatin, erythromycin, and cyclopenthiazide.

How long can you live with your pancreas not working? ›

Removing the pancreas can also reduce the body's ability to absorb nutrients from food. Without artificial insulin injections and digestive enzymes, a person without a pancreas cannot survive. One 2016 study found that about three-quarters of people without cancer survived at least 7 years following pancreas removal.

What does EPI poop look like? ›

Foul-smelling, oily stools (steatorrhea)

People with EPI are not able to absorb all the fat that they eat, so undigested fat is excreted, resulting in stools that look oily or greasy. Not all people experience this symptom.

What diseases can permanently damage the pancreas? ›

Chronic pancreatitis is a condition where the pancreas (a small organ located behind the stomach and below the ribcage) becomes permanently damaged from inflammation.

What is the most common disease associated with the pancreas? ›

Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) and pancreatitis are both serious disorders of the pancreas. Chronic pancreatitis is one of the most common causes of EPI.

What does an inflamed pancreas feel like? ›

Acute pancreatitis symptoms

Moderate to severe upper abdominal pain that may spread to your back. Pain that comes on suddenly or builds up over a few days. Pain that worsens when eating. Swollen, tender abdomen.

What is pancreas failure called? ›

Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI) is a condition which occurs when the pancreas does not make enough of a specific enzyme the body uses to digest food in the small intestine.

What is an inflamed pancreas called? ›

Acute pancreatitis is a condition where the pancreas becomes inflamed (swollen) over a short period of time. The pancreas is a small organ, located behind the stomach, that helps with digestion. Most people with acute pancreatitis start to feel better within about a week and have no further problems.

What is removal of pancreas called? ›

Surgery to remove the entire pancreas.

This is called total pancreatectomy. You can live relatively normally without a pancreas but will need lifelong insulin and enzyme replacement.

Can you feel your pancreas hurt? ›

Symptoms of an Enlarged Pancreas

Pain in the upper abdomen is a common symptom. Pain may spread to the back and feel worse when you're eating and drinking, such as in cases of pancreatitis. See a doctor right away if you have these symptoms.

How painful is pancreatic pain? ›

Some describe it as 'gnawing', 'grinding' or 'toothache'. It is usually worse after food and associated with post-prandial nausea and vomiting. Patients with chronic pancreatitis often avoid regular meals for fear of the pain associated with eating.

What does pancreatic pain feel like in the back? ›

People describe it as a dull pain that feels as if it is boring into you. It can begin in the stomach area and spread around to the back. The pain is worse when you lie down and is better if you sit forward. It can be worse after meals.

What part of your back hurts with pancreatitis? ›

The pain from pancreatitis may start in your upper abdomen and radiate to your lower back. The pain can be severe and disabling, so be sure to see a doctor right away.

What causes pancreatitis to flare up? ›

The most common cause of chronic pancreatitis is drinking a lot of alcohol over a long period of time.. Other causes include: An attack of acute pancreatitis that damages your pancreatic ducts. A blockage of the main pancreatic duct caused by cancer.

Does stress cause pancreatitis? ›

Emotional stress can excite the vagus nerve (connects the brain with the stomach) and causes the stomach to be stimulated to produce excessive amounts of acid. As noted, this increase in acid stimulates an increase in pancreatic secretion production. This can exacerbate pancreatitis once it has been established.

How many parts does the pancreas have? ›

Four Main Parts

Body - The body is the middle part of the pancreas between the neck and the tail. The superior mesenteric artery and vein run behind this part of the pancreas. Tail - The tail is the thin tip of the pancreas in the left side of the abdomen, in close proximity to the spleen.

What 4 vessels are located posterior to the pancreas? ›

The aorta, superior mesenteric artery, left renal vessels, left kidney, and left suprarenal gland are situated posterior to the pancreatic body.

What part of pancreas can you live without? ›

Total pancreatectomy

It's possible to live without a pancreas. But when the entire pancreas is removed, people are left without the cells that make insulin and other hormones that help maintain safe blood sugar levels.

Is pancreas on left or right side? ›

The head of the pancreas is on the right side of the abdomen and is connected to the duodenum (the first section of the small intestine) through a small tube called the pancreatic duct. The narrow end of the pancreas, called the tail, extends to the left side of the body.

What is the main vein in the pancreas? ›

The major vein of the ventral aspect is the SAPD; that of the dorsal aspect is the SPPD. Two arches, anterior and posterior, were found in the majority of cases. The left pancreas drains into the splenic v. via several collateral branches.

What artery runs on top of the pancreas? ›

The pancreatic branches or pancreatic arteries are numerous small vessels derived from the splenic artery as it runs behind the upper border of the pancreas, supplying its body and tail.

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