Parathyroid Disease (Hyperparathyroidism): An Overview

Parathyroid disease, also called hyperparathyroidism, occurs when one of the four parathyroid glands grows into a non cancerous tumor. The only effective treatment is surgery.

What is Parathyroid Disease? Most people do not know that they have one parathyroid, let alone four of them. Considering the name, it is easy to get them confused with the thyroid, which happens to be their anatomical neighbor, and a completely unrelated organ. It is not surprising, therefore, that diagnosis of parathyroid disease, or hyperparathyroidism, comes with a little shock and a lot of confusion.

Parathyroid disease is a rare condition that occurs when one (or more) of the parathyroid glands grows into a non-cancerous tumor. The overgrown gland then produces too much parathyroid hormone, also called PTH. The purpose of PTH is to regulate the amount of calcium in the bloodstream.

While most of us know that calcium is necessary for strong teeth and bones, a less well publicized fact is that calcium is also vital for proper brain, nerve and muscle function. When the parathyroids are functioning normally, they monitor calcium levels in the blood and release PTH when the levels fall. This signals our bones to release calcium into the bloodstream where it can be taken up and utilized by the rest of the body.

In patients with parathyroid disease, however, the overactive parathyroid persistently releases PTH, robbing the bones of calcium which then builds up in other body parts. Problems associated with hyperparathyroidism include kidney stones, damaged arteries and stoke.

Since calcium is used by the nervous system, patients may experience depression, fatigue, trouble sleeping, irritability, inability to concentrate, low energy levels and memory troubles. Additionally there are a host of physical symptoms such as osteoporosis or osteopenia (thinning of the bones), kidney stones, high blood pressure, recurrent headaches, heart palpitations, acid reflux (heartburn) and pain in the bones. Over time hyperparathyroidism will cause severe damage to a number of internal systems making diagnosis and treatment important.

Parathyroid disease can be detected with simple blood tests that measure serum calcium and PTH levels. The normal range for serum calcium is between 8.5 and 10.4, though most people need to have a serum calcium level between 9 and 10 to be healthy. If the serum calcium level is high (above 10.4) then PTH levels should be very low (between 5 and 8). If both serum calcium and PTH levels are high, then it is safe to assume you have parathyroid disease and should see a specialist.

The only effective treatment for parathyroid disease is removal of the parathyroid tumor. Luckily, modern technology has made it possible to locate the problematic gland pre-operatively and minimally invasive surgery is an option. However, since this condition is rare many doctors and surgeons are not familiar with it, making both diagnosis and treatment problematic.

Parathyroid disease is under-diagnosed and under-treated. No patient with consistently high calcium levels should consider their condition mild. If your doctor recommends taking a “wait and see” approach, or prescribes drugs of any sort to treat this disease, seek out a specialist who is more familiar you’re your condition. Surgery performed by an experienced surgeon results in a 99% cure rate.

Special thanks to Dr. James Norman of the Norman Parathyroid Clinic in Tampa, Florida, who’s website (www.parathyroid.com) served as a reference for this article.

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Alexa Steele
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