Hyperparathyroidism is where the parathyroid glands produce too much parathyroid hormone. The parathyroid glands are in the neck near the thyroid gland, at the front. This causes blood calcium levels to rise (hypercalcaemia). Left untreated, high levels of calcium in the blood can lead to a range of problems.
Symptoms of hyperparathyroidism
Hyperparathyroidism usually causes few or no symptoms. The severity of symptoms doesn't always relate to the level of calcium in your blood.
For example, some people with a slightly raised calcium level may have symptoms. While others with high calcium levels may have few or no symptoms at all.
If you do have symptoms, they can be wide-ranging and include:
- feeling thirsty and peeing a lot
- feeling sick and losing your appetite
- muscle weakness
- tummy pain
- loss of concentration
- mild confusion
Left untreated, high blood calcium levels may cause:
- muscle spasms
- bone pain or tenderness
- joint pain
- irregular heartbeat
- high blood pressure (hypertension)
It can also cause a number of other possible complications, including:
- osteoporosis and bone fractures
- kidney stones and blockage, and kidney damage or failure
- peptic ulcers
- pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
In very severe cases of hyperparathyroidism, high calcium levels can lead to rapid kidney failure, loss of consciousness, coma, or serious life-threatening heart rhythm abnormalities.
But hyperparathyroidism is usually diagnosed at an early stage and these complications are extremely rare. It is common for it to be picked up unintentionally on routine blood testing.
You should see your GP if you have the symptoms above and are concerned. It's important that hyperparathyroidism is diagnosed as soon as possible. Without treatment, it can gradually get worse and may lead to complications.
But in most cases, the condition is mild to moderate and remains stable for years.
Hyperparathyroidism is diagnosed after a blood test shows:
- high levels of parathyroid hormone
- high levels of blood calcium, often with low levels of phosphorus
Causes of hyperparathyroidism
There are two main types of hyperparathyroidism:
- primary – when there's a problem within the parathyroid gland itself, usually a benign (non-cancerous) tumour of the gland
- secondary – when there's nothing wrong with the gland, but a condition like kidney failure or vitamin D deficiency lowers calcium levels, causing the body to react by producing extra parathyroid hormone
Tertiary hyperparathyroidism is a term that describes long-standing secondary hyperparathyroidism that starts to behave like primary hyperparathyroidism.
People with tertiary hyperparathyroidism are almost always under the care of kidney specialists.
Causes of primary hyperparathyroidism
In 4 out of 5 cases, primary hyperparathyroidism is caused by a non-cancerous tumour called an adenoma on one of the parathyroid glands.
Less commonly, it can occur if two or more parathyroid glands become enlarged (hyperplasia).
Very rarely, primary hyperparathyroidism can be caused by cancer of a parathyroid gland.
Women are twice as likely to develop primary hyperparathyroidism than men. Most women who develop it are 50 to 60 years of age.
Treating primary hyperparathyroidism
Surgery to remove the parathyroid gland is the only way of treating primary hyperparathyroidism. This cures about 97 per cent of cases.
If your calcium levels are very high, you may need to be admitted to hospital urgently.
Make sure you have a healthy, balanced diet.
You don't need to avoid calcium altogether. A lack of dietary calcium is more likely to lead to a loss of calcium from your skeleton, resulting in brittle bones (osteoporosis).
But you should avoid a high-calcium diet and drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration.
Medications such as thiazide diuretics (water tablets commonly used to treat high blood pressure) should be avoided because they can cause dehydration and raise calcium levels.
Treating secondary hyperparathyroidism
Treatment for secondary hyperparathyroidism depends on the underlying cause.
Low vitamin D is the most common cause and can be corrected with oral vitamin D (colecalciferol).
Treating tertiary hyperparathyroidism
Medication may be used to treat tertiary hyperparathyroidism that occurs in very advanced kidney failure.
The health professional looking after your care will discuss treatment options with you.
More useful links
The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.
For further information see terms and conditions.