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Question : My blood calcium level was high. My doctor thinks that I may have an overactive parathyroid gland. What does that mean?
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The Trusted Source
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Howard LeWine, M.D.

Howard LeWine, M.D., is chief editor of Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications. He is a clinical instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital. Dr. LeWine has been a primary care internist and teacher of internal medicine since 1978.

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January 23, 2014
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Hyperparathyroidism (hi-per-par-a-thi-royd-izm) happens when the parathyroid glands make more parathyroid hormone than they should. There are 4 of these small glands. They are normally about the size of a half of a pea. And they are in the lower part of the neck behind the thyroid gland.

Parathyroid hormone acts on bone to release calcium into the blood stream. The amount of hormone made by the glands changes to keep the calcium blood level within the normal range. (The range is 8.8 to 10.4 mg/dL in adults).

If the blood calcium level starts to drop, the parathyroid gland makes more of the hormone. If the calcium level rises, the glands make less hormone. If the calcium level is higher than normal, the parathyroid glands pretty much shut down.

In hyperparathyroidism, one or more of the four parathyroid glands doesn’t pay attention to the calcium blood level and continues to make parathyroid hormone. The excess hormone is released into the blood stream. The result is an abnormally high blood calcium level and also a higher than normal parathyroid hormone level. (When the blood calcium level is higher than normal, the parathyroid hormone level should be very low.)

Many people with hyperparathyroidism have no symptoms. Others have fatigue, muscle aches and/or mild weakness. In some cases, when calcium blood levels are very high, symptoms include:

  • Frequent urination
  • Excessive thirst
  • Constipation
  • Difficulty concentrating

Mild hyperparathyroidism might not need immediate treatment. But you should not ignore it. You would need periodic blood tests to measure your calcium blood level. You would also need bone density tests to make sure your bones are not getting thinner because parathyroid hormone causes calcium to leak out of bones.

If you have symptoms, your doctor will order tests to determine if just one parathyroid gland is overactive, or if all of them are overactive. Your treatment plan will depend upon the test results.

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