Parathyroid Disorders

Parathyroid disorders disrupt the balance of calcium and other essential minerals in the blood, leading to a variety of health problems.

What Are Parathyroid Disorders?

The parathyroid glands are four pea-sized pieces of tissue at the back of the thyroid gland, which is located at the base of the throat. The parathyroid glands secrete parathyroid hormone (PTH), which helps maintain a proper balance of calcium and phosphorus in the blood. These minerals help regulate numerous bodily functions including blood clotting, blood pressure, growth and maintenance of cells and tissues, heart rhythm, nerve impulses and muscle movements.

In parathyroid gland disorders, the glands produce too much or too little PTH. The resulting imbalance of blood minerals leads to a variety of health problems.

Types of Parathyroid Disorders

There are three main types of parathyroid disorders.

  • hyperparathyroidism — or overactive parathyroid glands, which involves too much PTH, resulting in high blood calcium levels
  • hypoparathyroidism — or underactive parathyroid glands, which involves too little PTH, causing low calcium and high phosphorus levels
  • parathyroid cancer — which causes abnormally high calcium levels

Parathyroid disorders are further classified by where the condition originates. Primary disorders are due to problems with parathyroid gland function. Secondary disorders arise from another health condition, such as kidney failure.

Causes of Parathyroid Disorders

Problems with the parathyroid glands can occur due a wide variety of causes, including:

  • autoimmune disorders
  • cancer
  • endocrine disorders
  • injury, surgery or therapeutic radiation near the parathyroid glands
  • kidney disease, renal failure
  • rare genetic conditions
  • tumors and growths

Signs and Symptoms of Parathyroid Disorders

Symptoms of parathyroid disorders depend on the type and underlying cause and may include:

  • arrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat
  • blood pressure that is either too high or too low
  • fatigue and weakness
  • mood swings, anxiety, irritability or depression
  • unintended weight loss

Hyperparathyroidism symptoms include:

  • excessive urination
  • kidney stones
  • osteoporosis

Hypoparathyroidism symptoms include:

  • dry skin, brittle nails and patchy hair loss
  • muscle cramps and spasms
  • numbness and tingling in the fingers, toes and lips

Parathyroid cancer symptoms include:

  • digestive problems, such as ulcers and pancreatitis
  • kidney problems, including kidney stones and, potentially, kidney failure
  • lump in the neck
  • pain in the abdomen, back or bones
  • trouble swallowing
  • voice hoarseness or trouble speaking

How Are Parathyroid Disorders Diagnosed?

Doctors may use one of the following tests to diagnose a parathyroid disorder:

  • analysis of calcium, hormones and other substances in the blood
  • imaging studies, such as ultrasound, bone density scan, CT and MRI

Treatments for Parathyroid Disorders

Treatment is aimed at restoring a balance of calcium and phosphorus.  Additional treatment may be needed to address the underlying cause — including chemotherapy or radiation to address parathyroid cancer. Depending on the type of disorder and severity of symptoms, options may include:

  • drugs to reduce PTH production
  • medications to prevent bone loss
  • monitoring of calcium levels and kidney function
  • supplements, such as calcium, vitamin B12 and vitamin D
  • surgery to remove one or more parathyroid glands

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