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CHAPTER 70 Pancreas

The pancreas is the largest of the digestive glands and performs a range of both endocrine and exocrine functions. The major part of the gland is exocrine, secreting a range of enzymes involved in the digestion of lipids, carbohydrates and proteins. The endocrine function of the pancreas is derived from cells scattered throughout the substance of the gland: they take part in glucose homeostasis and are also involved in the control of upper gastrointestinal motility and function.

The pancreas is salmon pink in colour with a firm, lobulated smooth surface. The main portion is divided into four parts, head, neck, body and tail, purely on the basis of anatomical relations: there are only very minor functional or anatomical differences between each part (Figs 70.1 and 70.2). The pancreas also possesses one accessory lobe (the uncinate process), which is anatomically and embryologically distinct. In adults the pancreas measures between 12 and 15 cm long and is shaped as a flattened ‘tongue’ of tissue, thicker at its medial end (head) and thinner towards the lateral end (tail). With age, the amount of exocrine tissue tends to decline, as does the amount of fatty connective tissue within the substance of the gland, and this leads to a progressive thinning atrophy which is particularly noticeable on CT scanning. The pancreas lies within the curve of the first, second and third parts of the duodenum, and extends transversely and slightly upwards across the posterior abdominal wall to the hilum of the spleen, behind the stomach. It does not lie in one plane but is effectively ‘draped’ over the other structures in the retroperitoneum and the vertebral column and so forms a distinct shallow curve, of which the neck and medial body are the most anterior parts. Because of its flattened shape, the parts of the pancreas, particularly the body, are often referred to as having surfaces and borders.


Fig. 70.2 Coronal reformat CT of the pancreas

(by courtesy of Dr Louise Moore, Chelsea and Westminster Hospital).


The head of the pancreas lies to the right of the midline, anterior and to the right side of the vertebral column, within the curve of the duodenum. It is the thickest and broadest part of the pancreas but is still flattened in the anteroposterior plane. Superiorly it lies adjacent to the first part of the duodenum, but close to the pylorus the duodenum is on a short mesentery, and here the duodenum lies anterior to the upper part of the head. The duodenal border of the head is flattened and slightly concave, and is firmly adherent to the second part of the duodenum; occasionally a small part of the head is actually embedded in the wall of the second part of the duodenum. The superior and inferior pancreaticoduodenal arteries lie between the head and the duodenum in this area. The inferior border lies superior to the third part of the duodenum and is continuous with the uncinate process. Close to the midline, the head is continuous with the neck. The boundary between head and neck is often marked anteriorly by a groove for the gastroduodenal artery and posteriorly by a similar but deeper deep groove that contains the union of the superior mesenteric and splenic veins as they form the portal vein.


The neck of the pancreas is approximately 2 cm wide and links the head and body. It is often the most anterior portion of the gland and is defined as the portion of the pancreas that lies anterior to the portal vein, which is closely related to the upper posterior surface (see Fig. 70.8). The lower part of the neck lies anterior to the superior mesenteric vein just before the formation of the portal vein. These are important relations during surgery for pancreatic cancer because malignant involvement of these vessels may make resection impossible. The anterior surface of the neck is covered with peritoneum and lies adjacent to the pylorus just inferior to the epiploic foramen. The gastroduodenal and anterior superior pancreaticoduodenal arteries descend in front of the gland in the region of the junction of the neck and head.


Fig. 70.8 Venous drainage of the pancreas.

(Adapted from Drake, Vogl and Mitchell 2005.)


The body of the pancreas is the longest portion of the gland and runs from the left side of the neck to the tail. It is slightly triangular in cross-section, becoming progressively thinner and less broad towards the tail. The body is described as having three surfaces, anterosuperior, posterior and anteroinferior.

Anterosuperior surface

The anterosuperior surface of the pancreas makes up most of the anterior aspect of the gland close to the neck. Laterally, it narrows and lies slightly more superiorly to share the anterior aspect with the anteroinferior surface. It is covered by peritoneum, which runs anteroinferiorly from the surface of the gland to be continuous with the anterior, ascending layer of the greater omentum (see Fig. 64.4). The superior leaf of the transverse mesocolon is reflected and is continuous with the descending, posterior leaf of the greater omentum just above the anterior border and so forms virtually none of the covering of the anterosuperior surface. It is separated from the stomach by the lesser sac.