Diseases of the pancreas

Last Review Date: November 6, 2017

What is the pancreas?

The pancreas is a narrow, flat organ about 15 cm long, with a head, middle and tail section. It is located below the liver, between the stomach and the spine, and its head section connects to the duodenum (first part of the small intestine). Inside the pancreas, small ducts (tubes) feed fluids produced by the pancreas into the pancreatic duct. This larger duct carries the fluids down the length of the pancreas, from the tail to the head, and into the duodenum. The common bile duct also runs through the head section of the pancreas, carrying bile from the liver and gall bladder into the small intestine.

The pancreas consists of two kinds of tissue:

  • Exocrine which makes powerful enzymes to digest fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. The enzymes normally are created and carried to the duodenum in an inactive form, then activated as needed. Exocrine tissue also makes bicarbonate that works to neutralise stomach acids.
  • Endocrine which produces the hormones insulin and glucagon and releases them into the blood stream. These hormones regulate glucose transport into the body's cells and are crucial for energy production.

Common diseases of the pancreas

Acute pancreatitis

Pancreatitis is inflammation and damage to the pancreas. The most common cause of acute pancreatitis is blockage of the pancreatic duct by a gallstone, accounting for 35-40% of cases. Secretions can back up in the pancreas and cause permanent damage in just a few hours. They also can circulate to other body organs, causing shock and organ failure.

Excessive alcohol is also an important cause of acute pancreatitis, causing around 30% of cases.

Acute pancreatitis can be life-threatening.


Chronic pancreatitis

Chronic pancreatitis, associated most often with gall bladder disease and alcoholism, can cause painful attacks over a number of years and lead to other problems, such as pancreatic insufficiency, bacterial infections, and type 2 diabetes.



Type 1 diabetes involves destruction of pancreatic beta cells (which produce insulin) and a dependence on insulin; type 2 involves loss of some beta cell function and insulin resistance. Diabetes affects many other body organs, especially the kidneys.


Cystic fibrosis

CF is an inherited genetic disorder that disrupts chloride transport at the cellular level. This causes mucous plugs that block pancreatic enzymes from reaching the intestines and leads to digestive problems.


Pancreatic cancer

Cancer of the pancreas is diagnosed in about 2,000 people a year in Australia. Risks include smoking, age, gender (more common in men), chronic pancreatitis, and exposure to some industrial chemicals. Most (95%) pancreatic cancers are adenocarcinomas, developing in the exocrine tissues. Pancreatic cancer is very difficult to detect in the early stages because symptoms are either absent or non-specific: abdominal pain, nausea, loss of appetite and sometimes jaundice. Only about 10% of the cancers are still contained within the pancreas at the time of diagnosis.

Related pages

On this site
Conditions: Diabetes, insulin resistance, cystic fibrosis, pancreatic cancer, pancreatic insufficiency, alcoholism

Elsewhere on the web
Healthdirect Australia: Pancreatic diseases
Better Health Channel: Pancreas
Pancreas.org (US)