Glucagon Test: Purpose, Procedure and Advantage

Your pancreas makes glucagon hormone. While insulin helps reduce high levels of glucose in your blood, glucagon helps keep your blood sugar levels down.

When glucose in the blood decreases, the pancreas releases glucagon. Once it is in your blood, glucagon boosts the degradation of glycogen, which your body stores in your liver. Glycogen breaks down into glucose and it enters your blood. This allows the maintenance of normal blood glucose levels and cell function.

Your doctor may use a glucagon test to find out how much glucagon is in your blood.

Why is the test ordered?

Glucagon is a hormone that helps regulate the amount of glucose in the blood. If you have large fluctuations in blood glucose levels, you may experience problems with the regulation of glucagon. For example, hypoglycaemia, or hypoglycaemia, may indicate abnormal levels of glucagon. (1)

If you experience the following symptoms, your physician may prescribe a glucagon test:

  • mild diabetes
  • a skin eruption called necrolytic migratory erythema
  • unexplainly losing weight.

These symptoms often occur with pancreatic disorders which result in over-production of glucagon. Given the unique uniqueness of these symptoms, physicians do not regularly order glucagon tests as part of annual physical examinations. In other words, your physician will only order the test if they suspect that you are having problems with your glucagon regulation.

What are the advantages of the test?

The glucagon test can assist your physician in identifying the presence of diseases that occur with excessive glucagon production. While illnesses caused by abnormal levels of glucagon are uncommon, high levels are often associated with specific health problems.

For example, high levels of glucagon can be the result of a pancreatic tumor, known as a glucagonome.(1) It produces excess glucagon, which can lead to the development of diabetes. Other symptoms of glucagonoma may include unexplained weight loss, migrating erythema and mild diabetes. If you suffer from mild diabetes, your doctor may use the glucagon test to rule out the presence of glucagonoma as a cause of illness.

Your doctor may also use the glucagon test to measure your glucose control if you have developed type 2 diabetes or have insulin resistance. If you suffer from any of these illnesses, your glucagon levels are likely to be high. Effective blood glucose control will help you maintain normal levels of glucagon.

What are the risks of the test?

The glucagon test is an actual blood test. There are minimal risks associated with it, common to all blood tests. These risks include:

  • the requirement to use more than one needle stick if it is difficult to obtain a sample.
  • too much bleeding at the injection site.
  • accumulating blood under the skin at the injection site, called a hematoma.
  • infection at the point of injection.
  • fainting

How do you prepare for the test?

There is probably nothing you need to do to prepare for the glucagon test. However, your physician may advise you to fast in advance according to your health and the objective of the test. During fasting, you should avoid eating for some time. For example, you may be required to fast 8 to 12 hours before giving a blood sample.

What to expect during the procedure

A blood sample will be tested by your doctor. It is likely that you will provide a blood sample in a clinical setting, such as in your physician’s office. A health care professional is likely to draw blood from a vein of your arm with a needle. They’ll send it to the laboratory for analysis. Once you have the results, your physician can provide you with more information about the results and their significance.

What do your results mean?

The normal level of glucagon varies between 50 and 100 picograms/millilitre. Ranges of normal values may vary slightly between laboratories, and different laboratories may use different measurements. Your physician should take your glucagon test results into consideration along with other blood results and diagnostic tests to establish an official diagnosis.

What are the next steps?

If your glucagon level is abnormal, your physician may carry out further tests or assessments to determine the reason. Once your physician has diagnosed the cause, they may prescribe a suitable treatment plan. Get more information from your doctor about your diagnosis, treatment plan and long-term prospects.

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