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Serum Protein Electrophoresis Test

Overview

Key points

  1. Serum is the liquid part of your blood.
  2. Protein levels in your blood serum that are higher or lower than the normal range could indicate a variety of illnesses.
  3. Serum protein electrophoresis tests are used to help diagnose and monitor certain conditions.

Serum protein electrophoresis (SPEP) is a laboratory technique that’s used to determine the levels of some types of proteins in a blood sample. There are a number of reasons why a doctor may order this test. SPEP is used to help diagnose and monitor a variety of different diseases or disorders that have abnormal proteins or protein levels. Electrophoresis is not usually used by itself to diagnose a disease. Instead, it’s used along with other laboratory tests to provide more information to help with diagnosis.

Understanding serum protein electrophoresis

One of the best ways to get a better sense of the SPEP test is to look at each word in the name:

Serum

Serum is the liquid part of your blood. Blood appears to be a single substance to the naked eye. However, blood has several components. Both types of blood cells (red and white) and platelets are solids. When these are removed, a liquid is left behind. This is serum.

Protein

Proteins are substances made of small chemicals called amino acids. They have a number of roles:

  • They provide structure to the body.
  • They help transport nutrients.
  • They help the body fight off disease.

Too much or too little protein can cause problems. The five groups of proteins usually considered during an SPEP test are:

  • Albumin: This protein transports substances and plays a role in tissue growth and repair.
  • Alpha-1 globulins: The major alpha-1 globulin is called alpha-1-antitrypsin, which is produced by the lungs and liver and increases with inflammatory diseases.
  • Alpha-2 globulins: This class of protein has many functions in the body and is involved in inflammation.
  • Beta globulins: These proteins move substances, support immunity, and increase in number in multiple myeloma and conditions like high cholesterol and atherosclerosis.
  • Gamma globulins: These support the immune system and are increased in multiple myeloma, as well as some autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus erythematosus.

Electrophoresis

Electrophoresis is a lab technique used to separate groups of proteins in blood serum. This allows them to be measured and analyzed individually. It involves exposing serum placed in a special type of gel to an electric current. This causes the different types of proteins to move and group together. The proteins create separate bands on the gel, which are then analyzed by the laboratory.

What the SPEP test is used for

Your doctor may recommend SPEP if you are experiencing symptoms of a condition affecting the proteins in your blood serum. These symptoms could include the following:

  • unexplained weight loss
  • bone pain or frequent fractures
  • fatigue
  • weakness
  • nausea
  • constipation
  • excessive thirst
  • back pain

Some of the conditions that could be causing these symptoms are:

  • cancer
  • thyroid problems
  • diabetes
  • anemia
  • liver diseases
  • malnutrition
  • certain autoimmune diseases
  • multiple sclerosis

The serum protein electrophoresis test

No preparation is needed for the test. When you arrive, a healthcare professional will simply use a needle to take a blood sample. Some people experience mild pain when the needle is inserted. There may be some slight bruising afterward.

What do the test results mean?

The following table shows what most labs would consider normal results for SPEP testing. These values may vary slightly from facility to facility.

Type of ProteinAmount of Protein (grams/deciliter)
albumin3.8–5.0
alpha-1 globulin0.1–0.3
alpha-2 globulin0.6–1.0
beta globulin0.7–1.4
gamma globulin 0.7–1.6

What abnormal results for SPEP test may mean

The various proteins in the body perform different functions. This means that high or low levels of the five protein types examined during the test can point to different illnesses. Keep in mind that these are just clues. Further investigation will usually be needed to make a definitive diagnosis.

Albumin

Test Result Possible Condition(s)
Levels higher than normalDehydration
Levels lower than normalKidney or liver disease, a condition involving inflammation, poor nutrition

Alpha-1 globulin

Test Result Possible Condition(s)
Levels higher than normalDisease leading to inflammation (condition may be chronic or acute)
Levels lower than normalLiver disease, congenital emphysema (rare)

Alpha-2 globulin

Test Result Possible Condition(s)
Levels higher than normalKidney disease, disease leading to inflammation (condition may be chronic or acute)
Levels lower than normalLiver disease, poor nutrition, breakdown of red blood cells

Beta globulin

Test Result Possible Condition(s)
Levels higher than normalAnemia, multiple myeloma, high cholesterol
Levels lower than normalPoor nutrition, liver cirrhosis

Gama globulin

Test Result Possible Condition(s)
Levels higher than normalRheumatoid arthritis, infection, liver cirrhosis, inflammatory disease, multiple myeloma, lymphoma
Levels lower than normalImmune disorders and deficiencies

How test results may be used to decide future care

It’s not always obvious what high or low protein levels in the blood serum may mean. A doctor may use the results to make a diagnosis or decide on a course of treatment.

Your doctor may also order more tests. The test may also be performed again in the future. This can help the doctor decide how well therapies and medicines are working. 

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