The connection between amylase and pancreatitis is that amylase concentration in the blood is often elevated in patients with acute pancreatitis, a condition characterized by inflammation and swelling of the pancreas. Finding an elevated level of amylase can therefore help narrow in on the diagnosis of acute pancreatitis. Other conditions, however, can also cause elevations in amylase levels, so this blood test is not fail-proof. The connection between pancreatitis and amylase in chronic pancreatitis is different compared to acute pancreatitis because the loss of pancreatic function seen in chronic pancreatitis can lead to decreased amylase levels in the blood.
To fully grasp the link between pancreatitis and amylase, it helps to understand what amylase is. In brief, it is an enzyme, or substance that helps facilitate chemical reaction, that breaks down carbohydrates into their component parts. Most of the body’s amylase is made by the pancreas, an organ that secretes a number of different substances that aid the body in digesting food. With pancreatitis, a condition in which the pancreas is damaged by inflammation, the amylase stored in the pancreas is released into the blood.
Normally, the concentration of amylase in the blood ranges from 20 to 110 units per liter. Patients with pancreatitis typically have levels two or three times the upper limit of normal. Elevated levels of amylase are found in 70-95% of patients suffering from acute pancreatitis. As the inflammation of the pancreas resolves, the level of amylase trends back down to normal.
Although there is a link between acute pancreatitis and amylase elevations, other medical conditions can also cause increased amylase levels in the blood. The salivary glands also produce amylase, so infection or inflammation of these glands can cause elevations in amylase. Women who have suffered from a ruptured ectopic pregnancy can often have marked elevations in their amylase levels. Taking certain drugs, such as azathioprine and hydrochlorothiazide, can increase amylase concentrations in the blood. Damage to the intestinal tract, either from lack of blood flow or from obstruction, can also increase the measured amount of this chemical.
In patients with chronic pancreatitis, the link between pancreatitis and amylase is reversed. These patients often have decreased levels of amylase in their blood. This occurs because these patients have a loss of their pancreatic function because the chronic inflammation destroys the cells of this organ. Since amylase is one of the chemicals produced by the pancreas, patients with poor pancreatic function make decreased amounts of this substance.