Computed Tomography (CT or CAT) Scan of the Pancreas

(Pancreas CT Scan)

Procedure Overview

What is a CT scan of the pancreas?

Computed tomography (CT) scan is a noninvasive diagnostic imaging procedure that uses a combination of x-rays and computer technology to produce both horizontal and vertical cross-sectional images (often called slices) of the body. A CT scan shows detailed images of any part of the body, including the bones, muscles, fat, and organs. CT scans are more detailed than standard x-rays.

In standard x-rays, a beam of energy is aimed at the body part being studied. A plate behind the body part captures the variations of the energy beam after it passes through skin, bone, muscle, and other tissue. While much information can be obtained from a standard x-ray, a lot of detail about internal organs and other structures is not available.

In computed tomography, the x-ray beam moves in a circle around the body. This allows many different views of the same organ or structure. The x-ray information is sent to a computer that interprets the x-ray data and displays it in a two-dimensional (2D) form on a monitor.

CT scans may be done with or without "contrast." Contrast refers to a substance taken by mouth or injected into an intravenous (IV) line that causes the particular organ or tissue under study to be seen more clearly. Contrast examinations may require you to fast for a certain period of time before the procedure. Your physician will notify you of this prior to the procedure.

CT scans of the pancreas can provide more detailed information about the pancreas than standard x-rays of the abdomen, thus providing more information related to injuries and/or diseases of the pancreas. CT scans of the pancreas are useful in the diagnosis cancer of the pancreas and pancreatitis.

Other related procedures that may be used to diagnose pancreas disorders include abdominal x-rays, pancreas scan, endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), and abdominal ultrasound. Please see these procedures for additional information.

Anatomy of the pancreas

The pancreas is an elongated, tapered organ located across the back of the abdomen, and behind the stomach. The right side of the organ (called the head) is the widest part of the organ and lies in the curve of the duodenum (the first section of the small intestine). The tapered left side extends slightly upward (called the body of the pancreas) and ends near the spleen (called the tail).

The pancreas is made up of two types of glands:

  • Exocrine. The exocrine gland secretes digestive enzymes. These enzymes are secreted into a network of ducts that join the main pancreatic duct, which runs the length of the pancreas.

  • Endocrine. The endocrine gland, which consists of the islets of Langerhans, secretes hormones into the bloodstream.

Functions of the pancreas

The pancreas has digestive and hormonal functions:

  • The enzymes secreted by the exocrine gland in the pancreas help break down carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and acids in the duodenum. These enzymes travel down the pancreatic duct into the bile duct in an inactive form. When they enter the duodenum, they are activated. The exocrine tissue also secretes a bicarbonate to neutralize stomach acid in the duodenum.

  • The hormones secreted by the endocrine gland in the pancreas are insulin and glucagon (which regulate the level of glucose in the blood), and somatostatin (which prevents the release of the other two hormones).

Reasons for the Procedure

A CT scan of the pancreas may be performed to assess the pancreas for tumors and other lesions, injuries, bleeding, infections, abscesses, unexplained abdominal pain, obstructions, or other conditions, particularly when another type of examination, such as x-rays or physical examination, is not conclusive.

CT scans of the pancreas may be used to distinguish between disorders of the pancreas and disorders of the retroperitoneum (the back portion of the abdomen behind the peritoneal membrane).

There may be other reasons for your physician to recommend a CT scan of the pancreas.

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