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What Are the Causes of High Amylase Levels?

By Haven Lee
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Amylase is a pancreatic enzyme that is secreted during the digestion process to convert starches to sugars. The normal range for amylase is 23 to 85 units per liter of blood, depending on the lab that conducts the test. A doctor typically will order an amylase test to diagnose pancreatic inflammation, commonly known as pancreatitis. Cholecystitis, intestinal blockage, acute pancreatitis and certain medications can cause higher-than-normal amylase levels.

The pancreas is a gland that is situated behind the stomach and that releases hormones and enzymes to help the body break down and absorb nutrients from food. Autoimmune diseases, chronic alcohol consumption and a blockage of the pancreatic duct can lead to pancreatitis. When the pancreas becomes inflamed, high amylase levels are observed. Symptoms of pancreatitis include nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. The best treatment depends on the cause.

Cholecystitis refers to inflammation of the gallbladder, a small organ that plays a role in fat digestion. The gallbladder stores and releases bile, a digestive fluid made of substances that emulsify fat. A blockage of the bile duct is the most common cause of gallbladder inflammation. Blood tests typically reveal high amylase levels during a bout of cholecystitis. Most episodes typically last a few days, after which amylase levels usually return to normal.

The intestines are designed to move food through the digestive tract and absorb nutrients. Undigested food and digestive fluids can become trapped in the intestines when an obstruction occurs, causing high amylase levels. Common symptoms include diarrhea, bloating, constipation, gas and cramping. Most intestinal obstructions resolve on their own. Surgery typically is recommended if the obstruction is caused by a bowel disease.

Pancreatic cancer can cause high amylase levels. A test to measure amylase levels is sometimes used to monitor pancreatic cancer treatment. Early symptoms of pancreatic cancer include dark urine, fatigue, weight loss, nausea and stomach discomfort. Surgery is commonly performed to relieve pancreatic blockages caused by cancer. Amylase levels might remain elevated until the cancer is under control.

Sometimes, high amylase levels are not associated with a particular disease or condition. Certain drugs such as birth control pills, over-the-counter medications such as aspirin and opiates such as codeine cause higher-than-normal amylase levels. Consuming alcohol before an amylase test can also increase amylase levels. A doctor typically will recommend avoiding the consumption of alcohol for 24 hours before testing. If amylase levels are elevated, a doctor generally will search further to identify an exact cause.

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Discussion Comments
By anon930057 — On Feb 03, 2014

I'm 38 and have been feeling under the weather for the last four to six months. I've lost about 10 pounds over the last year. I'm having headaches four or five times a week. I've also had issues with bowel movements for about three months. No diarrhea but stools are not formed. This is accompanied by nausea and loss of appetite. I have been so stressed at work that I just blamed it on that.

Last week, I finally decided to go see my doc. He ordered a host of blood and stool tests. I haven't done the stool testing yet but I got my blood work back. My amylase is 505U/L and ESR is 43mm/hr. LFTs are fine and nothing else is significant. The doc wants me to get an abdominal ultrasound this week. I'm just looking for some suggestions/comments. Thanks!

By clintflint — On Jan 09, 2013

@KoiwiGal - What I suspect will happen in the next couple of decades is more home testing kits to become available on the market.

I don't know if you can test amylase in the saliva or if it has to be a blood test, but a kit with a swab that turns blue if your levels are too high wouldn't be that hard to make, I suspect.

They already allow diabetics to test their blood sugar and I'm sure there are other tests out there as well, that were once only done by doctors.

By KoiwiGal — On Jan 09, 2013

@indigomoth - I don't know if it's any comfort or not, but pancreatic cancer is also very difficult to detect before it goes past the point of no return. Although I don't know at what point it causes high amylase levels.

I also don't know if doctors routinely check on amylase levels after a person gets past a certain age, or if it's just something they do if they already suspect something is wrong. Sometimes I wonder if people shouldn't be expected to just get a routine check up on blood and urine and everything else once a year. I actually think that would be cheaper than paying for their care after they get sick.

By indigomoth — On Jan 09, 2013

My grandmother suffered from pancreatic cancer. Unfortunately, it's almost always fatal if it isn't caught early. I know she had been having some pain but she was the kind of woman who thought that she should never complain.

It's always a good idea to go to the doctor if you suspect something is wrong. Don't drive yourself into a panic or anything, but regular checkups can help you live a long life.

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