How much do you know about this important but often overlooked gland?
As an endocrine surgeon, I treat all conditions related to hormones and their regulation of different body processes. Thyroid gland problems are probably one of the most common things I treat patients for, but there’s other glands in the neck that deserve a bit more attention than it tends to get: the parathyroids.
The parathyroids are four small glands adjacent to the thyroid in the neck, but not related in any way. While the thyroid controls the body’s metabolism, the parathyroid has one main function: to regulate the body’s calcium levels, by producing a parathyroid hormone called PTH. Adequate calcium is essential for every cell in the body, particularly the brain.
Occasionally, one of the four glands tends to malfunction and causes the production of too much PTH. Think of the parathyroid as a thermostat for your home. When it’s cold outside, or the calcium level is low, your PTH hormone is turned up higher to signal the release of more calcium from the bones and gut into the body and the cells. This is what happens when the parathyroid is functioning normally.
Hyperparathyroidism is a disorder in which an excess of PTH causes an elevated calcium level in the body: It’s 90 degrees outside and PTH is cranked up, drawing too much calcium from the body’s storage.
Hyperparathyroidism is hugely underdiagnosed, partly because it tends to strike randomly, and the symptoms are often attributed to other problems. Because calcium is critical to communication between nerves, many symptoms are “brain” related -- short-term memory loss, insomnia, depression, irritability, but can also include abdominal pain, constipation, bone pain and kidney stones. The condition is most common after age 45, and it affects women more than men.
That’s why I recommend asking your doctor about your calcium levels at your next physical, especially if you are experiencing any of these symptoms. Calcium and PTH, as well as vitamin D which helps in the absorption of calcium, are part of a routine blood test. If either blood calcium or PTH is high, it’s worth discussing whether you should see a specialist.
Left undiagnosed, the effects of high blood calcium can lead to some dangerous long term effects, such as kidney disease, heart disease and, especially for women, osteoporosis.
If it’s determined that you have hyperparathyroidism, the cure is straightforward and very effective: surgery to remove the malfunctioning glands. (Our body actually only needs one half of one gland for normal function.) What I love about the operation is that it’s not only good for the body, but patients describe feeling like a fog has been lifted. They feel less fatigued and more energetic after surgery.
To make an appointment with Dr. Kahan, call 948-1000.