Parathyroid glands are four small glands located in the neck behind the thyroid where they continuously monitor and regulate blood calcium levels. Parathyroid glands regulate the calcium by producing a hormone called Parathyroid Hormone (PTH). Calcium is an important element in our bodies (we use it to control many organ systems), so calcium is regulated more carefully than any other element. In fact, calcium is the only element with it’s own regulatory system — the parathyroid glands.
There are a few conditions related to the parathyroid gland which are explained below.
Low blood calcium Low blood calcium is much less common, particularly when caused by a parathyroid gland problem. There are some conditions that are present from birth and are quickly detected and treated immediately. The treatment must be lifelong! Gradually the body adapts to this lower calcium level and symptoms can be minimal even if you are not always faithful about taking your medicine. Forget to take it for too long and bad things happen starting with tingling around the lips and in the fingers and toes. If you don’t do anything about this you will likely develop severe painful cramps in your hand. This is known as tetany – it sounds like the infection tetanus, but it is not at all related. A more common cause of low blood calcium due to a parathyroid problem is seen in patients who have major neck operations for conditions such as throat or thyroid cancer. In order to remove as much as the cancer as possible from the neck, it is sometimes necessary to remove the parathyroid glands as well, even though they are not directly involved in the cancer. If not checked, this can cause a rapid drop in calcium and the development of tingling and cramps in the hands and feet. This does not happen often because the surgeon will be carefully monitoring your blood calcium if he or she has done extensive neck surgery. Making sure you get plenty of calcium by mouth and intravenously should always be done, and many times there is also treatment with the active vitamin D, calcitriol. Patients who are left with underactive parathyroids after such surgery do not really adapt well to this and are at much increased risk of having symptoms from their low calcium.
Types of Parathyroid disease
- Hyperparathyroidism is the state of increased secretion or activity of parathyroid hormone (PTH).
- Hypoparathyroidism is the state of decreased secretion or activity of parathyroid hormone (PTH).
You may be at an increased risk of hyperparathyroidism if you:
- Are a woman who has gone through menopause
- Have had prolonged, severe calcium or vitamin D deficiency
- Have a rare, inherited disorder, such as multiple endocrine neoplasia, type 1, which usually affects multiple glands
- Have had radiation treatment for cancer that has exposed your neck to radiation
- Have taken lithium, a drug most often used to treat bipolar disorder
You may be at an increased risk of hypoparathyroidism if you:
- Recent neck surgery, particularly if the thyroid was involved
- A family history of hypoparathyroidism
- Having certain autoimmune or endocrine conditions, such as Addison’s disease — which causes your adrenal glands to produce too little of its hormones