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About the Pancreas

The pancreas is an organ located in the upper abdomen towards the back that is shaped much like a tadpole with a head, neck, body and tail. The pancreas is responsible for making enzymes that break down and digest the food that we eat, and for making insulin, which is crucial to maintain a normal blood sugar level.

Pancreas Anatomy

The head of the pancreas is nestled into the C-loop of the duodenum, which is the first part of the small intestine. The gland lies behind the stomach and is in close approximation to the spleen, colon, liver and kidneys. The neck of the pancreas is defined by the mesenteric blood vessels (the portal vein and the superior mesenteric artery) and the uncinate process of the pancreas slips behind these vessels.

Other important blood vessels in close proximity to the pancreas include the celiac axis, the hepatic artery, the splenic artery and vein and the superior mesenteric vein. The pancreas has a ductal system that provides a conduit for digestive enzymes to move through the pancreas and into the small intestine. The main pancreatic ductal system includes both the ducts of Wirsung and Santorini.

What Does the Pancreas Do?

The pancreas produces enzymes that are necessary to break down the food that we eat. These enzymes are secreted into the ductal system, which joins with the common bile duct before entering the small intestine at the Ampulla of Vater. The bile and pancreatic enzymes mix in the small intestine to emulsify and digest the food.

The pancreas also secretes hormones into the bloodstream to control the sugar (glucose) level. Insulin allows the tissues in the body to absorb sugar from the bloodstream to be used as an energy source. Thus, insulin has the effect of lowering the blood sugar level. The pancreas also secretes counter-regulatory hormones (glucagon) which prevents the blood glucose from becoming too low.