What is the pancreas?
The pancreas is an organ and a gland. Glands are organs that produce and release substances in the body.
The pancreas performs two main functions:
- Exocrine function: Produces substances (enzymes) that help with digestion.
- Endocrine function: Sends out hormones that control the amount of sugar in your bloodstream.
What is the exocrine system?
The exocrine system consists of glands that make substances that travel through a duct (tube). Besides the pancreas, the exocrine system includes:
- Lacrimal glands (tear glands).
- Mammary glands.
- Mucous membranes.
- Salivary glands.
- Sebaceous (oil) glands.
- Sweat glands.
What is the endocrine system?
The endocrine system consists of glands that release hormones into your blood. These glands control many of your body’s functions.
Besides the pancreas, your endocrine system includes the:
- Adrenal glands.
- Ovaries and testes.
- Parathyroid and thyroid gland.
- Pineal gland.
- Pituitary gland.
What does your pancreas do?
An exocrine gland runs the length of your pancreas. It produces enzymes that help to break down food (digestion). Your pancreas releases the following enzymes:
- Lipase: Works with bile (a fluid produced by the liver) to break down fats.
- Amylase: Breaks down carbohydrates for energy.
- Protease: Breaks down proteins.
When food enters your stomach:
- Your pancreas releases the pancreatic enzymes into small ducts (tubes) that flow into the main pancreatic duct.
- Your main pancreatic duct connects with your bile duct. This duct transports bile from your liver to your gallbladder.
- From the gallbladder, the bile travels to part of your small intestine called the duodenum.
- Both the bile and the pancreatic enzymes enter your duodenum to break down food.
How does the pancreas affect blood sugar?
The endocrine glands in your pancreas release hormones that control blood sugar (glucose). These hormones are:
- Insulin: Reduces high blood sugar levels.
- Glucagon: Increases low blood sugar levels.
Can a person live without a pancreas?
Yes, you can live without your pancreas. However, you will need to take enzyme pills to digest food and insulin shots to control your blood sugar for the rest of your life. Though pancreatic removal is rare, surgeons may remove your entire pancreas if you have pancreatic cancer, major injury to your pancreas or severe pancreatitis.
Where is the pancreas?
Your pancreas sits behind your stomach and in front of your spine. 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.
How big is the pancreas?
The pancreas is about 6 inches long. It’s about the length of your hand.
What are the parts of the pancreas?
The pancreas anatomy includes:
- Head: The wider part of the pancreas that sits in the curve of your duodenum.
- Neck: The short part of the pancreas extending from the head.
- Body: The middle part of the pancreas between the head and neck, which extends upward.
- Tail: The thinnest part of the pancreas, located near your spleen.
Conditions and Disorders
What conditions and disorders can affect the pancreas?
The following disorders can affect the pancreas:
- Type 1 diabetes: Type 1 diabetes occurs when your pancreas doesn’t produce insulin.
- Type 2 diabetes: Type 2 diabetes occurs when your body makes insulin but doesn’t use it correctly.
- Hyperglycemia: Hyperglycemia happens when your body produces too much glucagon. This results in high blood sugar levels.
- Hypoglycemia: Hypoglycemia occurs when your body produces too much insulin. It causes low blood sugar levels.
- Pancreatitis: Pancreatitis happens when enzymes start to work in the pancreas before they reach the duodenum. It may result from gallstones or excessive alcohol. Pancreatitis can be temporary or long-lasting (chronic).
- Pancreatic cancer: Cancerous cells in the pancreas cause pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer can be difficult to detect and treat.
What are common tests to check the health of the pancreas?
The position of the pancreas deep in your abdomen makes it difficult to check through a physical evaluation. Your provider may use surgery to look for problems in your pancreas.
Your healthcare provider may also use pancreas function tests including:
- Abdominal ultrasound or endoscopic ultrasound.
- Blood tests.
- CAT (computed tomography) scan.
- ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatograpy) or MRCP (magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography).
- Fecal elastase test.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
- Secretin pancreatic function test.
How are pancreas problems treated?
Healthcare providers treat pancreas conditions in different ways, depending on the condition:
- Diabetes: Insulin replacement.
- Pancreatic cancer: Chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.
- Pancreatitis: Dietary changes, medications and sometimes surgery.
Some people may need a pancreas transplant or pancreatectomy (surgical removal of some or all of the pancreas). Less commonly, people may have a transplant of islets of Langerhans cells (pancreatic cells that make insulin and glucagon) into the liver to maintain insulin function.
How can I keep my pancreas healthy?
You can help reduce your risk of pancreatic conditions by:
- Maintaining a healthy weight. Regular exercise and avoiding weight gain can help prevent Type 2 diabetes and gallstones that can cause pancreatitis.
- Eating a low-fat diet. High fat intake can lead to gallstones, which can cause pancreatitis. Being overweight is also a risk factor for pancreatic cancer.
- Watching your alcohol intake. Drinking alcohol can increase your risk of pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer.
- Quitting smoking. Using tobacco, along with cigar smoking and smokeless tobacco products, can raise your risk of pancreatic cancer and chronic pancreatitis.
- Getting regular checkups. Seeing your healthcare provider for regular exams can help find early signs of conditions such as pancreatic cancer and pancreatitis.
Frequently Asked Questions
When should I call a healthcare provider about my pancreas?
If you have symptoms that don’t go away or keep coming back, you should talk to a healthcare provider. Signs of pancreas problems may include:
- Belly or back pain.
- Blurry vision.
- Dark urine or light-colored, greasy stools.
- Exhaustion without an obvious cause.
- Extreme thirst or frequent urination.
- Nausea or vomiting.
- Tingling in your hands or feet.
- Weight loss without a change in diet or exercise.
- Yellowing of the eyes and skin (jaundice).
A note from Cleveland Clinic
The pancreas is an organ in your abdomen. It produces substances that impact digestion and blood sugar. Conditions that affect the pancreas range from Type 1 diabetes and Type 2 diabetes to pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer. You can take steps to help keep your pancreas healthy, including maintaining a healthy diet and weight. Always see your healthcare provider if you have symptoms that won’t go away.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy