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What happens if my calcium level is too high?

parathyroid-imageIn some people, for reasons not fully understood, one (or more) of the four parathyroid glands becomes overactive, like an engine with the throttle running high all the time, or a thermostat that won’t shut off even though the temperature has reached the set point.  In this case, the one overactive gland is always producing PTH, no matter what the blood calcium level is.  The body responds by raising the blood calcium level abnormally high.  In most cases, the calcium level in such cases will be just a little higher than normal, in the low or high 10’s, or even above 11.  This level of calcium may not alter how you feel, in other words, you may be asymptomatic.  But this abnormal calcium level can cause problems.  It makes some people feel tired much of the time.  It can cause some mild depression.  It can cause or aggravate high blood pressure, and make it more difficult to get your blood pressure in a normal range with the usual medications.  Your bowel function may slow down, causing constipation.  Over time, the calcium can build up in the kidneys, and form kidney stones.  Over a period of years, the buildup of calcium can clog up the filtration system of the kidneys, causing progressive failure of the kidneys.  The continuous withdrawal of calcium from the bones can weaken them.  In women who already suffer from osteoporosis or osteopenia, this situation just makes matters worse.  If left untreated for years, the bones can become very abnormal, to the point that there are obvious changes that can be seen with simple xrays. (This problem can occur in men, too, it just is not as common, since underlying bone weakness is less common in men.)

In the past, patients with this disease, called “hyperparathyroidism”, would not be diagnosed until these later stages of the disease, once the damage to the bones and kidneys had already been done.  But now, calcium levels in the blood can be checked routinely with a simple blood test.  If your calcium level is above normal, it is fairly simple to identify the cause.  There are other reasons why your calcium level might be high, but a simple evaluation should make the diagnosis clear.  If the high calcium level is because of an overactive parathyroid gland, a simple measurement of the PTH level will show a high PTH level, at the same time that the calcium level is high.  If all the parathyroid glands are all functioning normally, the PTH level should NOT be elevated when your calcium level is high.

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Although some patients may have no symptoms when their calcium level is high, most patients do have at least some of these problems, shown listed below.

  • Loss of energy. Don’t feel like doing much. Tired all the time.
  • Just don’t feel well; don’t quite feel normal. Hard to explain but just feel kind of bad.
  • Feel old. Don’t have the interest in things that you used to.
  • Can’t concentrate, or can’t keep your concentration like in the past.
  • Depression.
  • Osteoporosis and osteopenia.
  • Bones hurt; typically it’s bones in the legs and arms but can be most bones.
  • Don’t sleep like you used to. Wake up in middle of night. Trouble getting to sleep.
  • Tired during the day and frequently feel like you want a nap.
  • Irritability, or “crankiness”.
  • Forget simple things that you used to remember very easily.
  • Gastric acid reflux; heartburn; GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease).
  • Decrease in sex drive.
  • Thinning hair (predominately in older females).
  • Kidney Stones.
  • High Blood Pressure (sometimes mild, sometimes quite severe; up and down a lot).
  • Recurrent Headaches
  • Heart Palpitations (arrhythmias).

Now, if you have some, many, or all of these symptoms, and your calcium level is high, there is a good chance that you will have improvement or complete relief from some or all of them.  However, there is no way to guarantee in advance that correction of your high calcium level will relieve such symptoms.

There are patients who have dramatic improvement in such symptoms, even in the first few days after surgery.


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