what-does-the-pancreas-do

Updated January 11, 2021

You may not know it, but your pancreas has a big job to do.

Resting just behind the stomach, the pancreas cannot be seen or felt by touch. And, well, many people don’t really know what this organ does for the body.

But the pancreas plays a critical role in your overall health. Learn more about the pancreas’ functions, diseases, and treatment options.

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What Is the Pancreas?

Located deep in the abdomen, the pancreas is responsible for the production of several important hormones, including insulin, which controls the amount of sugar in your blood. The pancreas also produces the hormone glucagon, which works with insulin to balance your blood sugar levels.

Because of its location behind your stomach, it can be difficult to diagnose pancreatic tumors or cancer, as they can’t be felt like tumors under the skin or in breast tissue. This also helps explain why pancreatic diseases are usually not diagnosed until symptoms start to appear.

Functions of the Pancreas

The six-inch organ aids in digestion by making secretions of pancreatic juice that contain digestive enzymes. These enzymes help break down sugars, fats, and starches from foods. Every day, your pancreas makes about 8 ounces of enzyme-filled digestive juice.

The pancreas also creates essential hormones that balance appetite, stimulate stomach acids, and aid in regulating blood sugar. Hormones that are created in the pancreas travel through the bloodstream to deliver messages to the digestive system.

Common Pancreatic Diseases and Disorders

Pancreatic diseases can affect your whole body. Since the pancreas helps regulate your blood sugar, it is linked to:

Diabetes

  • Type 1 diabetes: This is a chronic condition in which the pancreas produces little or no insulin, the hormone needed to allow sugar to enter cells to produce critical energy.
  • Type 2 diabetes: If you have type 2 diabetes, your body does not use insulin properly — a condition referred to as “insulin resistance.” At first, the pancreas produces extra insulin to make up for it, but overtime, the organ simply cannot keep up to produce enough insulin to stabilize your blood sugar levels.

Symptoms of Diabetes

The symptoms of both type 1 and type 2 can include:

  • Blurry vision
  • Cuts or sores that don’t heal well
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Frequent urination
  • Increased thirst
  • Weight loss

There are many other diseases and problems which may affect your pancreas in addition to diabetes, including:

  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Pancreatitis, or inflammation in your pancreas
  • Islet cell tumors, which can be cancerous or benign (not malignant)
  • Enlarged pancreas, where your pancreas is larger than it should be

Pancreatic Disease Symptoms

Be on the lookout for these symptoms, which can warn of pancreatic disease:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Tenderness when touching the abdomen
  • Abdominal pain that radiates to your back
  • Upper abdominal pain

Who’s At Risk?

Outside of uncontrollable factors such as age, gender, and genetics, the following may put you at a higher risk of developing pancreatic diseases or disorders:

  • Being overweight or obese
  • Frequent alcohol and tobacco use

     

Other Treatments for the Pancreas

Therapies for pancreatic diseases and disorders can vary depending on the condition. Some common treatments for disorders of the pancreas can include:

  • Pain medication
  • Intravenous (IV) fluids
  • Gallbladder removal
  • Pancreatic surgery

Pancreatic Transplantation

Many people also don’t know that the pancreas can be a transplantable organ. By transplanting a healthy pancreas into your body, it can effectively cure diabetes by regulating your blood sugar levels, eliminating your need for insulin shots. These types of transplants are rarely done alone, as many people who need a pancreas transplant also benefit from a kidney transplant.

UPMC Transplant services have more than 30 years of experience and has pioneered the field of transplantation. To learn more about pancreas transplants and other transplant information please visit the UPMC Kidney and Pancreas Transplant Program online.

About Digestive Disorders

The UPMC Digestive Disorders Center cares for a wide range of gastrointestinal conditions and diseases, from diagnosis to treatment. Upon referral from your physician, we coordinate your testing and treatment. If you have a complicated condition, we can refer you to one of UPMC’s digestive health centers of excellence. Most of our office visits and outpatient procedures take place at UPMC Presbyterian or UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital in Oakland. We also provide inpatient care at UPMC Montefiore or UPMC Presbyterian in Oakland.