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 first portion of the small intestine (duodenum).
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 other less common causes.
Pancreatitis usually develops quickly and subsides within a few days but can last for a few weeks. This is called acute pancreatitis. In some cases, however, inflammation persists and gradually destroys pancreatic function. This is called chronic pancreatitis.
Pancreatitis most commonly causes severe pain in the upper abdomen that is often accompanied by nausea and vomiting. Pancreatitis may cause permanent damage to the pancreas.
People who have acute pancreatitis typically need to be hospitalized for a period of time and may require a lot of fluids given by vein (intravenously) until they feel better and are pain free.
People who have chronic pancreatitis sometimes need to take capsules of pancreatic enzyme extracts with meals to help relieve pain and improve digestion.