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The Test Sample
What is being tested?
Alkaline phosphatase (ALP) is an enzyme found in several tissues throughout the body. The highest concentrations of ALP are present in the cells that comprise bone and the liver. Elevated levels of ALP in the blood are most commonly caused by liver disease or bone disorders. This test measures the level of ALP in the blood.
In the liver, ALP is found on the edges of cells that join to form bile ducts, tiny tubes that drain bile from the liver to the bowels, where it is needed to help digest fat in the diet. ALP in bone is produced by special cells called osteoblasts that are involved in the formation of bone. Each of the various tissue types produces distinct forms of ALP called isoenzymes.
ALP blood levels can be greatly increased, for example, in cases where one or more bile ducts are blocked. This can occur as a result of inflammation of the gallbladder (cholecystitis) or gallstones. Smaller increases of blood ALP are seen in liver cancer and cirrhosis, with use of drugs toxic to the liver, and in hepatitis.
Any condition causing excessive bone formation, including bone disorders such as Paget's disease, can cause increased ALP levels. Children and adolescents typically have higher blood ALP levels because their bones are still growing. As a result, the ALP test must be interpreted with different reference (normal) values for children and for adults.
It is possible to distinguish between the different forms (isoenzymes) of ALP produced by different types of tissues in the body. If it is not apparent from clinical signs and symptoms whether the source of a high ALP test result is from liver or bone disease, then a test may be performed to determine which isoenzyme is increased in the blood.
How is the sample collected for testing?
A blood sample is drawn by needle from a vein in the arm.
NOTE: If undergoing medical tests makes you or someone you care for anxious, embarrassed, or even difficult to manage, you might consider reading one or more of the following articles: Coping with Test Pain, Discomfort, and Anxiety, Tips on Blood Testing, Tips to Help Children through Their Medical Tests, and Tips to Help the Elderly through Their Medical Tests.
Another article, Follow That Sample, provides a glimpse at the collection and processing of a blood sample and throat culture.
Is any test preparation needed to ensure the quality of the sample?
Fasting is preferred but not required for this test. Eating a meal can increase the ALP level slightly for a few hours in some people. It is usually better to do the test after fasting overnight. In this case, only water is permitted.