Last week, I underwent a minimally invasive (small incision) operation that I hadn’t heard of before but which appears to be already making a big difference in my health. The operation is called a parathyroidectomy.
The parathyroid glands are four small glands located behind the thyroid in the neck whose sole function is to control the amount of calcium in our bodies within a tight blood range of about 8.5-10.5 mg/dL, depending on a particular laboratory’s values.
“Every cell and organ in the body uses calcium as a signal to regulate their normal function. Therefore, it is crucial that calcium levels are tightly controlled. Abnormally high blood calcium levels can damage every organ in the body gradually over time.” (Emphasis added)
If one or more of these small parathyroid glands starts growing (called an adenoma and rarely cancerous), this causes the parathyroid to release too much parathyroid hormone which causes abnormally high calcium in the bloodstream. This can cause serious health problems like cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis (bone loss which can lead to fractures), depression , increased risk of cancer and even premature death.
In the US, about 100,000 people of all ages develop this condition called primary hyperparathyroidism each year which predominantly affects older “populations and women two to three times as often as men“.
The diagnosis of hyperparathyroidism is sometimes missed because the blood calcium is not especially high at first and symptoms can be unnoticed, mild or confused with other conditions like normal aging. Also, doctors often take a wait and see approach if patients have no symptoms.
In primary hyperthyroidism, the diagnosis is usually made by discovering a high blood calcium level (often checked routinely at yearly visits) and a high parathyroid level in the blood (PTH) if other causes of high blood calcium have been ruled out. The PTH blood test is NOT a routine test and must be ordered separately.
In the 1990s, calcium levels above 12 mg/dL and age less than 50 were the National Institutes of criteria for parathyroidectomy when a patient did not have the classic symptoms of hyperparathyroidism, especially because the operation was such a big surgery. However, now we have a minimally invasive parathyroid surgery that is usually low risk and only involves a small incision that can often even be done on an outpatient basis. In the 2000s, the high calcium criteria for surgery on patients without symptoms was recommended to be reduced to just 1 mg/dL above the normal range (about 11.5 mg/dL). However, my surgeon just told me last month that the criteria may be changing again down to an even lower level but that scientific paper will not be published until December.
For the last few years, my blood calcium was at the upper end of normal and I had a diagnosis of borderline osteoporosis despite taking calcium pills daily and taking osteoporosis medication in the past.
When my blood calcium rose to 11.9, I researched the topic and I was alarmed by what I read. It was then that I realized that the symptoms of bone pain and increased fatigue that I never thought to mention to my doctor could actually be symptoms of an adenoma in my parathyroid.
I asked my doctor about getting a PTH test. That test turned out to be high and I was quickly referred to a surgeon well-experienced with hyperparathyroidism.
I underwent a short, minimally invasive surgery and I was one of the lucky ones who had this experience as described on the endocrineweb.com site:
Even though half of patients with this hyperparathyroidism (Parathyroid Disease) will state that they feel just fine, after a successful parathyroid operation more than 85 percent of these patients will claim to “feel much better”! Some say it’s like “someone turned the lights on”.
In my case, my bone pain was gone and I felt more energetic than I had in a long time.
I am happy that this operation is expected to start relieving my bone loss by returning the blood calcium to my bones. I am also relieved that I am avoiding long term damage to my body from high blood calcium.
I hope that this information will help others who may have this disease find better health!
There is still controversy over when and how to treat mild hyperparathyroidism without symptoms. Some experts have made extravagant claims about parathyroid surgery that make it sound like a miracle cure while others are more cautious about treatments and surgery. There is a tremendous amount of information available, especially on the internet, but I always recommend discussing health concerns with your doctor first.