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.