Amylase is a digestive enzyme made primarily by the pancreas and salivary glands. Enzymes are substances made and used by the body to trigger specific chemical reactions. The primary function of the enzyme amylase is to break down starches in food so that they can be used by the body. Amylase testing is usually done to determine the cause of sudden abdominal pain.
Amylase testing is performed to diagnose a number of diseases that elevate amylase levels. Pancreatitis, for example, is the most common reason for a high amylase level. When the pancreas is inflamed, amylase escapes from the pancreas into the blood. Within six to 48 hours after the pain begins, amylase levels in the blood start to rise. Levels will stay high for several days before gradually returning to normal.
There are other causes of increased amylase. An ulcer that erodes tissue from the stomach and goes into the pancreas will cause amylase to spill into the blood. During a mumps infection, amylase from the inflamed salivary glands increases. Amylase is also found in the liver, fallopian tubes, and small intestine; inflammation of these tissues also increases levels. Gall bladder disease, tumors of the lung or ovaries, alcohol poisoning, ruptured aortic aneurysm, and intestinal strangulation or perforation can also cause unusually high amylase levels.
Amylase testing is done on both blood and urine. The laboratory may use any of several testing methods that involve mixing the blood or urine sample with a sub-stance with which amylase is known to react. By measuring the end-product or the reaction time, technicians can calculate the amount of amylase present in the sample. More sophisticated methods separately measure the amylase made by the pancreas and the amylase made by the salivary glands.
Urine testing is a better long-term monitor of amylase levels. The kidneys quickly move extra amylase from the blood into the urine. Urine levels rise six to 10 hours after blood levels and stay high longer. Urine is usually collected throughout a 2-or 24-hour time period. Results are usually available the same day.
In most cases, no special preparation is necessary for a person undergoing an amylase blood test. Patients taking longer term urine amylase tests will be given a container and instructions for collecting the urine at home. The urine should be refrigerated until it is brought to the laboratory.
Discomfort or bruising may occur at the puncture site or the person may feel dizzy or faint. Pressure to the puncture site until the bleeding stops reduces bruising. Applying warm packs to the puncture site relieves discomfort.
Normal results vary based on the laboratory and the method used.
Eight out of ten persons with acute pancreatitis will have high amylase levels, up to four times the normal level. Other causes of increased amylase, such as mumps, kidney failure, pregnancy occurring in the abdomen but outside the uterus (ectopic pregnancy), certain tumors, a penetrating ulcer, certain complications of diabetes, and advanced pancreatic cancer, are further investigated based on the person's symptoms, medical history, and the results of other tests.
In kidney disease, the kidneys are not as efficient at removing amylase from the blood. Amylase rises in the blood, but stays at normal levels in the urine.
People with macroamylasia have large clumps of amylase in their blood. These clumps are too large to move through the kidney, so they stay in the blood. Amylase levels in the blood will be high; levels in the urine will be low.
Amylase levels may be low in severe liver disease (including hepatitis), conditions in which the pancreas fails to secrete enough enzyme for proper digestions (pancreatic insufficiency), when toxic materials build up in the blood during pregnancy (pre-eclampsia), following burns, in thyroid disorders, and in advanced cystic fibrosis. Some medications can raise or lower levels.
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Pagana, Kathleen Deska. Mosby's Manual of Diagnostic and Laboratory Tests. St. Louis: Mosby, Inc., 1998.
Nancy J. Nordenson
Amylase—A digestive enzyme made primarily by the pancreas and salivary glands.
Enzyme—A substance made and used by the body to trigger specific chemical reactions.
Pancreatitis—Inflammation of the pancreas.