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Overview of Pancreatitis

By Steven D. Freedman, MD, PhD, Harvard Medical School;Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

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Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas.

The pancreas is a leaf-shaped organ about 5 inches (about 13 centimeters) long. It is surrounded by the lower edge of the stomach and the wall of the duodenum (the first portion of the small intestine leading out of the stomach). The pancreas has three major functions:

  • To secrete fluid containing digestive enzymes into the duodenum

  • To secrete the hormones insulin and glucagon, which help regulate sugar levels in the bloodstream

  • To secrete into the duodenum the large quantities of sodium bicarbonate (the chemical in baking soda) needed to neutralize the acid coming from the stomach

Inflammation of the pancreas can be caused by gallstones, alcohol, various drugs, some viral infections, and digestive enzymes. Pancreatitis usually develops quickly and subsides within a few days but can last for a few months (acute pancreatitis). In some cases, however, inflammation persists and gradually destroys pancreatic function (chronic pancreatitis).

Locating the Pancreas

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* This is the Consumer Version. *