If you have a problem with your parathyroid gland you've probably noticed that everyone from general practitioners to parathyroid surgeons is very concerned about your calcium levels. While patients often know the parathyroid glands and calcium are linked, exactly how and what the concern is can be difficult to understand. Here are five things you must know or ask your parathyroid surgeons about.
Your parathyroid gland controls calcium levels in your blood.
Your parathyroid glands are tiny glands in your neck which lie beneath your thyroid gland. Most people have 4 parathyroid glands, producing parathyroid hormone or PTH. The parathyroid glands detect the level of calcium in your blood and produce different amounts of PTH in response. PTH then makes your bones release small amounts of calcium into your bloodstream and makes your kidneys hold onto more calcium in your blood. In a healthy person, this process will keep the level of calcium in your blood steady. However, if your parathyroid glands aren't working properly they may produce too much PTH, leading to high calcium levels in your blood. This condition is called hyperparathyroidism, and it is the most common reason why people are referred to parathyroid surgeons.
High calcium is not a good thing.
Considering the publicity about having enough calcium in your diet for healthy bones, people sometimes think that a high level of calcium in your blood must be a good thing. This is not the case! It's important for calcium levels in our blood to be tightly controlled. If calcium levels are too high, you can suffer from a number of problems due to both the important role calcium has as a chemical signal in your blood and the build-up of calcium in some organs.
The most serious problems are kidney stones and heart arrhythmias, which means that your heart beats in a different rhythm. Less serious problems include excessive thirst, bone and muscle pain, abdominal pain (often with nausea and constipation) and being unusually tired or confused. High calcium levels due to hyperparathyroidism also mean that your bones are losing too much calcium, which can lead to osteoporosis. Many people with hyperparathyroidism have no symptoms, but it's still important to get the opinion of a parathyroid surgeon to see if treatment is needed.
Thyroid surgery can lead to very low calcium levels.
Parathyroid glands are tiny, each being about the size of a lentil. Sometimes thyroid surgeons can accidentally remove or damage parathyroid glands when operating on the thyroid gland. If this occurs, patients can have very low calcium levels, sometimes requiring extra treatment. For this reason, a simple blood test is usually ordered by thyroid surgeons after any thyroid surgery so that they can check that the parathyroid glands are still working well.
Parathyroid surgery can also change your calcium levels.
Parathyroid surgeons also pay close attention to their patient's calcium levels after parathyroid surgery. This is done for two reasons. Firstly, to check for the success of the surgery if one or more of the parathyroid glands were removed due to hyperparathyroidism. In this case, they'd expect calcium levels to drop. Secondly, to check that enough parathyroid tissue is still functioning that patients have normal calcium levels. Occasionally not enough healthy parathyroid tissue remains after surgery, meaning a patient may need treatment to keep their calcium levels within a normal range.
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