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The Pancreas

Illustration of  the anatomy of the pancreas
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Anatomy of the pancreas

The pancreas is an elongated, tapered organ located across the back of the abdomen, behind the stomach. The right side of the organ -- called the head -- is the widest part of the organ and lies in the curve of the duodenum, the first division of the small intestine. The tapered left side extends slightly upward -- called the body of the pancreas -- and ends near the spleen--called the tail.

The pancreas is made up of two types of glands:

  • Exocrine. The exocrine gland secretes digestive enzymes. These enzymes are secreted into a network of ducts that join the main pancreatic duct, which runs the length of the pancreas.

  • Endocrine. The endocrine gland, which consists of the islets of Langerhans, secretes hormones into the bloodstream.

Functions of the pancreas

The pancreas has digestive and hormonal functions:

  • The enzymes secreted by the exocrine gland in the pancreas help break down carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and acids in the duodenum. These enzymes travel down the pancreatic duct into the bile duct in an inactive form. When they enter the duodenum, they are activated. The exocrine tissue also secretes a bicarbonate to neutralize stomach acid in the duodenum, which is the first section of the small intestine.

  • The main hormones secreted by the endocrine gland in the pancreas are insulin and glucagon, which regulate the level of glucose in the blood, and somatostatin, which prevents the release of the other two hormones.

Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Date Last Reviewed: 4/15/2014
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