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Parathyroid glands are small glands
of the endocrine system which are located in the neck behind the
thyroid. Parathyroid glands control the calcium in our
bodies--how much calcium is in our bones, and how much calcium is in our
blood. Calcium is the most important element in our bodies (we use it to
control many systems), so calcium is regulated very carefully. Parathyroid
glands control the calcium.
Parathyroid glands (we all have 4 of them) are normally the size of a
grain of rice. Occasionally they can be as large as a pea and still be normal. The
four parathyroids are shown in this
picture as the mustard yellow glands behind the pink
Normal parathyroid glands are the color of spicy yellow mustard.
The light blue tube running up the center of the picture is the trachea
(wind pipe). The voice box is the pink structure at the top of the picture
sitting on top of the trachea. The carotid arteries are shown on
both sides of the thyroid running from the heart up to the brain. NOTE:
we are looking at the back side of the thyroid so we can see the
parathyroids. Remember, the parathyroids are behind the thyroid. Also note
that this drawing shows three small (normal) parathyroid glands and one
big diseased one--this is the typical situation of a patient with parathyroid
disease--one of the parathyroid glands grows into a tumor and makes too
much hormone. If you have parathyroid disease, you very likely have 3
normal parathyroid glands the size of a grain of rice and one parathyroid tumor
that is as big as an olive, grape, or even a walnut. If you have
parathyroid disease (hyperparathyroidism) you will need an operation to
remove the one parathyroid gland which has become a tumor. More about parathyroid disease on other pages...this page is
about NORMAL parathyroid function. One more introductory note... We must
make sure you understand that the thyroid and parathyroid are NOT related.
are neighbors and both are part of the endocrine system, the thyroid and parathyroid glands
are otherwise unrelated--they do not have the same
function--just similar and confusing names!
The Role of Calcium in the Human Body...
and how the Parathyroid Glands Control ALL Calcium Levels in our
a word about CALCIUM and what it does in our bodies. We use many elements
in our bodies to perform all the different functions of life.
Calcium is essential to life, and is used primarily for three things:
To provide the electrical energy for our nervous system.
The most important thing that calcium does in the human body is
provide the means for electrical impulses to travel along nerves.
Calcium is what the nervous system of our body uses to conduct
electricity. This is why the most common symptoms of parathyroid
disease and high calcium levels are related to the nervous system
(depression, weakness, tiredness, etc, etc). Much more about symptoms
of parathyroid disease on another page.
To provide the electrical energy for our muscular system.
Just like the nerves in our bodies, our muscles use changes in calcium
levels inside the cells to provide the energy to contract. When the
calcium levels are not correct, people can feel weak and have muscle
To provide strength to our skeletal system. Everyone
knows that calcium is used to make our bones strong, but this is
really only half the story. The bones themselves serve as the storage
system that we use to make sure we will always have a good supply of
calcium. Just like a bank vault where we constantly make deposits and
withdrawals, we are constantly putting calcium into our bones, and
constantly taking calcium out of our bones... all in small amounts...
with the sole purpose of keeping our calcium levels in the blood at
the correct level. Remember, the most important role of calcium is to
provide for the proper functioning of our nervous system--not to
provide strength to our bones--that is secondary.
calcium is the most closely regulated element in our bodies. In
fact, calcium is the ONLY element / mineral that has its own regulatory
system (the parathyroid glands). There are no other glands in
our bodies that regulate any other element. Why? Because its our
nervous system that separates us from all other plant and animal life--and
calcium provides the electrical system for our nervous system. When our
calcium levels get elevated (almost always due to a bad parathyroid
gland), then we can have changes in our personality (typically noticed by
our loved ones) and many other nervous-system symptoms (depression, etc).
So, parathyroid disease is not just about osteoporosis and kidney stones,
it is primarily about us feeling "normal" and enjoying life.
The Role of the Parathyroid Glands -- to Regulate
ONLY purpose of the
parathyroid glands is to regulate the calcium level in our bodies within a very
narrow range so that the nervous and muscular systems can function properly.
This is all they do. They measure the amount of calcium in the
blood every minute of every day... and if the calcium levels go down a
little bit, the parathyroid glands recognize it and make parathyroid
hormone (PTH) which goes to the bones and takes some calcium out (makes a
withdrawal from the calcium vault) and puts it into the blood. When the
calcium in the blood is high enough, then the parathyroids shut down and
stop making PTH.
The single major disease of parathyroid glands is
over-activity of one or more of the parathyroids which make too much parathyroid hormone
causing a potentially serious calcium imbalance (too high calcium in
the blood). This is called hyperparathyroidism and this is the disease
that this entire web site is about.
Parathyroid Quick Facts:
There are 4 parathyroids glands. We all have 4
Except in rare
cases, parathyroid glands are in the neck behind the thyroid.
Parathyroids are NOT related to the thyroid (except
they are neighbors in the neck).
The thyroid gland controls much of your body's
metabolism, but the parathyroid glands control body calcium. They have
no relationship except they are neighbors.
Parathyroid glands make a hormone, called
Doctors and labs abbreviate Parathyroid Hormone as
Just like calcium, PTH has a normal range in our
blood...we can measure it to see how good or bad a job the parathyroid
glands are doing.
All four parathyroid glands do the exact same thing.
Parathyroid glands control the amount of calcium in
Parathyroid glands control the amount of calcium in
You can easily live with one (or even 1/2) parathyroid
Removing all 4 parathyroid glands will cause very bad
symptoms of too little calcium (hyp0parathyroidism).
Hyp0parathyroidism is the opposite of hypERparathyroidism and it
is very rare... only one page of this entire site is about
When parathyroid glands go bad, it is just one gland
that goes bad about 91% of the time--it just grows big (develops a
benign tumor) and makes too
much hormone. About 8% of the time people with hyperparathyroidism
will have two bad glands. It is quite uncommon for 3 or 4 glands
to go bad.
When one of your parathyroid glands go bad and
makes too much hormone, the excess hormone goes to the bones and
takes calcium out of the bones and puts it in your blood. It's
the high calcium in the blood that makes you feel bad.
Everybody with a bad parathyroid gland will
eventually develop bad osteoporosis--unless the bad gland is
Parathyroids almost never develop cancer--so stop worrying
However, not removing the parathyroid tumor
and leaving the calcium high for a number of years will increase
the chance of developing other cancers in your body (breast,
colon, kidney, and prostate).
There is only ONE way to treat parathyroid
Mini-Surgery is now
available that almost everyone can/should have. You should educate
yourself about the new surgical treatments available. Do not have an
"exploratory" operation to find the bad parathyroid
tumor--this old fashioned operation is too big and dangerous.
There is a lot of information about parathyroid
disease and why it must be fixed. To make this information more
understandable we have
separated our parathyroid pages into specific topics. We will often help you pick the next most appropriate topics. If you
get a little lost, use the navigation bar on the left side of the
page, go back to the Home Page, or use our
Table of Contents which has all pages
listed and a sentence telling what parathyroid topic is discussed.
Suggested Next Few
If you like learning by watching a video, then watch
Dr Norman give an 8-minute talk. The first is "What
is calcium and why is it so important? The second video that
corresponds to this page of Parathyroid.com is on the topic of "what
are parathyroid glands?" These videos can be found on
our Teaching Videos Page. You
will LOVE this!
This parathyroid page was last updated 03/05/2013