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 thyroid gland. 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. Although they 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!
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The Role of Calcium in the Human Body... and how the Parathyroid Glands Control All Calcium Levels in our Bodies.
First 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 cramps.
- 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.
Thus, 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 Calcium.
The 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 parathyroids glands.
- 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 "Parathyroid Hormone".
- Doctors and labs abbreviate Parathyroid Hormone as "PTH".
- 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 your blood.
- Parathyroid glands control the amount of calcium in your bones.
- You can easily live with one (or even 1/2) parathyroid gland.
- Removing all 4 parathyroid glands will cause very bad symptoms of too little calcium (hypOparathyroidism). HypOparathyroidism is the opposite of hypERparathyroidism and it is very rare... only one page of this entire site is about hypOparathyroid disease.
- 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 removed.
- Parathyroids almost never develop cancer--so stop worrying about that!
- 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 problems--Surgery.
- 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.