The Stitch

Hyperparathyroidism: easy to cure but commonly under-diagnosed

A doctor holding a medical device near a patient's neck.

Dr. Feibi Zheng, Baylor Medicine endocrine surgeon, wants patients to be aware of their calcium levels to treat an easily detectable and curable disease called hyperparathyroidism.

Hyperparathyroidism can occur when one or more of the four little glands next to your thyroid (parathyroid glands) become enlarged and your body starts increasing the calcium levels in your blood.

“The primary way your body puts more calcium in the blood is by breaking down your bones,” said Zheng, assistant professor in the Division of Surgical Oncology. “This makes patients at risk for a fragility facture. A fragility fracture is if someone falls from standing and breaks a bone. This is not supposed to happen but can in patients with hyperparathyroidism.”

In addition to weak bones, hyperparathyroidism can also cause kidney stones, memory loss, a decrease in planning ability, poor sleep quality and a decline in overall kidney function. This disease is most common in postmenopausal women, and the cause is largely unknown in most patients. A small percentage of patients have hyperparathyroidism due to a genetic condition. Patients with a history of lithium use can also develop hyperparathyroidism.

Pay attention to your regular blood test that you get for an annual physical. Zheng says if your calcium levels are elevated, ask your doctor to recheck calcium and parathyroid levels. This will tell your doctor if you have hyperparathyroidism.

The treatment for hyperparathyroidism is a surgery called parathyroidectomy where the surgeon removes the enlarged parathyroid gland or glands. Surprisingly, the body does not need all four complete parathyroid glands to function. “Like many other organs in the body such as the liver or pancreas, if most of the organ is normal, you only need a portion of it to live a healthy life,” Zheng said.

The cure rate after surgery is more than 95%; only 5% of patients will have parathyroid become enlarged again. Most of the surgeries are done outpatient and don’t require any extensive preparations.

“It is easy to cure this disease,” Zheng said. “This blood test is usually covered by insurance and widely available, so it’s sad that it’s missed so often.

Learn more about Baylor Medicine Endocrine Surgery

By Tiffany Harston, communications specialist in the Michael E. DeBakey Department of Surgery

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