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Hyperparathyroidism: An Overview

Hyperparathyroidism is a disease in which one of the parathyroid glands has developed into a non-cancerous tumor. This is a quiet, but deadly disease that should be treated by a specialist.

Despite the name, hyperparathyroidism has nothing to do with the thyroid gland. Rather it is a disease that impacts the parathyroid glands which perform an entirely separate function from the thyroid gland.

What is a parathyroid?

Image via Wikipedia

The human body has four parathyroid glands that are usually found in the neck, right behind the thyroid. I say usually because this particular piece of the anatomy develops in such a way that it can vary in location. In some people they are found as high as the jaw line, in others they can be found within the chest cavity, near the heart. Having an unusually placed parathyroid gland in and of itself is not harmful. Likely you will go your whole life without knowing where yours are unless something goes wrong.

Each healthy parathyroid gland is about the size of a pea. They have a rich blood supply and one very important job – to regulate the amount of calcium in the blood. In addition to calcium being important for building strong bones, it contributes to proper brain, nerve and muscle function. In order to make calcium available to these other systems, the parathyroid glands secrete a hormone aptly named parathyroid hormone, or PTH. When blood calcium levels are low PTH signals the bones to release calcium into the blood.

What is hyperparathyroidism?

If one or more of the parathyroid glands develops into a tumor it will grow to be the size of an olive or a walnut. This overgrown gland is rarely cancerous, however it no longer functions properly. Instead of producing PTH when blood calcium levels are low, it overproduces the hormone, causing an unwarranted amount of calcium to leach from the bones. High blood calcium harms not only the skeletal structure, but other internal systems. Over time hyperparathyroidism can lead to osteoporosis, kidney stones, heart trouble, liver problems, and even stroke.

What are the symptoms of hyperparathyroidism?

Symptoms include: osteoporosis, osteopenia, high blood pressure, kidney stones, depression, fatigue, heartburn, headaches, trouble sleeping, irritability, low sex drive, heart palpitations, poor memory, low energy, pain in the bones, and poor concentration.

How is Hyperparathyroidism treated?

There is no medication that can treat primary hyperparathyroidism (the kind cause by the parathyroid growing into a tumor). There is a drug called Sensipar that is used to treat secondary hyperparathyroidism (in which there is no parathyroid tumor, but a high level of calcium in the blood due to some other condition such as kidney failure), however this drug should not be taken by those with parathyroid disease. The only proper treatment for primary hyperparathyroidism is surgery to remove the parathyroid tumor, called a parathyroidectomy. Thankfully, modern technology makes minimally invasive surgery and option.

Patients who have successful parathyroidectomies will be cured of their disease and begin feeling better in short order. Even patients who had not noticed symptoms prior to surgery report feeling better afterward. Unfortunately since this is a rare condition many doctors are not familiar with it, causing patients to sometimes go undiagnosed or untreated for years. By the time most patients consult with a specialist the symptoms have usually become sever and even life threatening. If you have had a blood test that shows high serum calcium levels (above 10) speak to an endocrinologist who regularly treats patients with parathyroid disease.

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