Defining Parathyroid Disorders: Origins, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatments
Finding out about the inch-long thyroid gland’s outsize role in maintaining equilibrium in the body often comes as something of a shock to patients newly diagnosed with thyroid disorders. What may be even more surprising is being diagnosed with a disorder of the parathyroid glands, four pea-sized glands that are attached behind the thyroid gland itself.
Despite their tiny stature, the parathyroid glands also play a key role in maintaining health and well-being. Although problems originating in the parathyroid glands often do not have the wide-ranging health impact associated with disorders of the larger thyroid gland, they can still cause significant health challenges for patients.
Still, the general public’s awareness of parathyroid gland disorders tends to be very low. In fact, many doctors report that it’s not uncommon for their patients to be unaware of the parathyroid glands’ existence before being diagnosed with a disorder of these small glands. Medical science, as well, was slow to recognize the parathyroid glands -- they were the last major organ of the human body to be discovered and described in the scientific literature, with the first study identifying the glands published in 1880.
This week, we’ll take a look at parathyroid thyroid gland disorders, focusing on common symptoms, causes, diagnosis procedures, established and emerging treatments, and disease outcomes.
What are the Parathyroid Glands?
In spite of their close proximity to the thyroid gland and a similar-sounding name, the parathyroid glands are actually quite different from their larger neighbor. In fact, they diverge significantly from the thyroid gland in both structure and function.
Unlike the follicle-based structure that defines the thyroid gland, the parathyroid glands are comprised of a mass of densely-packed cellular tissues. Furthermore, while the thyroid gland has a wide range of regulatory functions within the larger endocrine system, the parathyroid glands’ primary task is the regulation of certain types of calcium within the body.
The majority of people have four parathyroid glands, but it is estimated that as much as 10% of the general population has more, with 6, 7, and 8 parathyroid glands being the most commonly identified deviation from the norm. Although the structural differences between the two make it easy for parathyroid gland cells to be differentiated from thyroid gland cells under a microscope, the glands can be quite difficult to distinguish with the naked eye or using common medical imaging techniques, which can pose a challenge during diagnosis or surgery.
What are the Major Parathyroid Gland Disorders?
Like the thyroid gland, most parathyroid disorders fall into one of two broad categories, both of which are related to the production of a chemical compound known as parathyroid hormone (PTH).
Overactive parathyroid glands that produce too much parathyroid hormone result in a condition known as hyperparathyroidism. Patients diagnosed with hyperparathyroidism often experience excess calcium levels in the blood. This, in turn, can disrupt the regulation of phosphorous in the body, as well as the bones’ intake of calcium. In some cases, it also results in kidney stones. In most cases, hyperparathyroidism is caused by a benign tumor or growth on the parathyroid glands. In rare instances, the disorder results from cancerous cell growth.
Patients whose parathyroid glands produce too little parathyroid hormone are diagnosed with the disorder known as hypoparathyroidism. The primary outcomes of this disorder are blood calcium deficiency and excess phosphorous levels. These mineral imbalances can result in other problems, such as bone density loss, brain calcifications, and cataracts.
Most cases of hypoparathyroidism are caused by neck or throat injuries. In some cases, hypoparathyroidism can result from the treatment of a thyroid disorder, such as thyroid surgery or radioactive iodine treatment.
Diagnosis and Treatment of Parathyroid Gland Disorders
The symptoms associated with parathyroid disorders are often so subtle as to be imperceptible to the patient. Often, they are diagnosed with the help of blood screening tests. When doctors note an unusual value in calcium or phosphorus levels, the parathyroid glands are often viewed as possible culprits. Further testing and analysis of the patient’s medical history can usually help finalize the diagnosis.
When identified quickly, the prognosis for treatment of parathyroid disorders is typically very good. Most current treatment options involve regulating calcium and phosphorus levels in the body with prescription drugs and mineral supplements. In some cases, surgery is necessary, particularly for patients with overactive parathyroid glands.
However, in cases in which the diagnosis of the parathyroid disorder has been delayed, the patients may be faced with irreversible health problems, such as dental problems, cataracts, and bone loss.
If you have a personal or family history of thyroid disorders, it is important to alert your doctor so that you can undergo parathyroid disorder screening as part of your ongoing medical care. Be sure to check back each week for more news to help fine-tune your thyroid health.
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