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What is the pancreas?

The pancreas is a 15cm (6 inch) long 'tadpole' shaped gland found behind the stomach at about the height of the breastbone and is connected to the liver.

The pancreas does important work making enzymes to digest food and insulin hormones to regulate blood sugar.

picture of human pancreas


Pancreas conditions

Type 1 diabetes: In this condition, the body's immune system has destroyed the ability of the pancreas to make insulin for blood sugar control - so insulin injections are needed for life.

Type 2 diabetes: In this form of diabetes there's a more gradual loss of the ability of the pancreas to make and release insulin. The body also becomes resistant to insulin causing a rise in blood sugar.

Cystic fibrosis: This genetic condition affects many part of the body including the pancreas, causing digestive problems.

Pancreatic cancer: Tumours can affect cells and ducts in different parts of the pancreas impacting the work they do. These cancers cause few symptoms initially making it hard to detect early.

Islet cell tumour: A cancerous or non-cancerous (benign) tumour can develop in hormone-producing cells. These include gastrinomas, glucagonomas and insulinomas.

Pancreatitis: The pancreas becomes inflamed, swollen and damaged by this condition.

Pancreatic pseudocyst: A build-up of fluid can happen following pancreatitis.

Enlarged pancreas: Having a larger than usual pancreas may or not require treatment.

Pancreas tests

Physical examination: A doctor may be able to detect some pancreas problems by feeling for a mass through the abdomen.

Ultrasound: Sound waves are transmitted from a probe held on the abdomen to give an image of the pancreas.

CT scan: A detailed image of the pancreas is taken using a series of X-rays with or without special contrast dye being injected to give better clarity.

MRI scan: Similar to a CT scan but using magnets rather than X-rays, including a magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP) scan of pancreas, liver and bile system.

Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP): The head of the pancreas is viewed using a camera tube system fed through the mouth.

Pancreas biopsy: Tissue samples are taken for laboratory testing using needles through the skin or surgical techniques.

Amylase and lipase: Blood tests for pancreatitis by checking for high levels of pancreatic enzymes.

Sweat chloride test: Chloride levels in sweat are measured to check for cystic fibrosis after an electric current is used to stimulate sweating.

Pancreas treatments

Insulin: Injected insulin regulates blood sugar if the pancreas is not working in diabetes.

Islet cell transplant: Insulin-producing cells from a donor are implanted to help the pancreas of a person with diabetes start making insulin again.

Pseudocyst drainage: A procedure to drain fluid from a pancreatic pseudocyst.

Pseudocyst surgery: Removing a pseudocyst, often through keyhole surgery may be needed if drainage is not possible.

Pancreatic cancer resection (Whipple procedure): A treatment for pancreatic cancer involving removal of the head of the pancreas.

Pancreatic enzymes: This can be a cystic fibrosis treatment to replace enzymes the pancreas is unable to produce.

Pancreas transplant: A replacement pancreas from a dead donor replaces a faulty pancreas, which may be an option for some people with diabetes or cystic fibrosis.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on December 05, 2016

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