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Canadian Journal of Gastroenterology
Volume 16 (2002), Issue 12, Pages 849-854
Original Article

Extensive Investigation of Patients with Mild Elevations of Serum Amylase and/or Lipase Is ‘Low Yield’

Michael F Byrne,1 Robert M Mitchell,1 Helen Stiffler,1 Paul S Jowell,1 Malcolm S Branch,1 Theodore N Pappas,2 Doug Tyler,2 and John Baillie1

1Division of Gastroenterology, Department of Medicine, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina, USA
2Department of Surgery, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina, USA

Received 10 June 2002; Accepted 4 November 2002

Copyright © 2002 Hindawi Publishing Corporation. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


BACKGROUND: Serum amylase and lipase levels are widely used as markers of pancreatic inflammation. However, it would seem that mild elevations of amylase and lipase rarely predict significant pancreatic pathology. Pancreatic imaging tests are expensive. The gold standard, endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography, carries risk of morbidity and mortality.

OBJECTIVE: To determine whether extensive investigation of patients with mild, nonspecific abdominal symptoms and mild elevations of amylase and/or lipase results in a significant diagnostic yield.

METHODS: Outpatient evaluations were retrospectively analyzed over 12 months. Inclusion criteria were nonspecific abdominal pain, and mild elevations (less than three times the upper limit of normal) of serum amylase or lipase, or both. Exclusion criteria included a history of chronic pancreatitis, elevation of liver tests and acute pain syndromes.

RESULTS: Nineteen patients over the study period met the criteria. Of the nineteen patients, 58% had elevation of lipase alone, 21% amylase alone and 21% had elevations of both. In addition, 89.5% of the patients had nonspecific abdominal pain. After imaging with one or more of ultrasound, computed tomography, magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography, endoscopic ultrasound and endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography, small bowel follow through or hepatobiliary scanning, 78.9% patients were thought to have a normal pancreas. Of the remaining patients, 15.8% had mild or equivocal changes of chronic pancreatitis, and one patient was found to have a pancreatic tail pseudocyst. The average cost of investigation was US$2,255, taking only direct procedural costs into account. No patient was found to have malignancy.

CONCLUSIONS: The majority of patients with nonspecific abdominal pain and isolated elevations of amylase and/or lipase (less than three times the upper limit of normal) had no identifiable pancreatic pathology. The diagnostic yield in patients with mild elevations of lipase alone was particularly poor. The cost effectiveness and risk-benefit ratio of extensive investigation of this group of patients warrants further study.