Hypoparathyroidism occurs when either insufficient levels of parathyroid hormone are released by the parathyroid glands in the neck, or the parathyroid hormone that is released does not work properly. It leads to low levels of calcium in the blood which causes a number of different symptoms, commonly muscle cramps, pain and twitching. It can be successfully treated with calcium and vitamin D supplements but regular blood test monitoring is needed.
The body has four parathyroid glands. They are small, pea-sized glands, located in the neck just behind the butterfly-shaped thyroid gland. Two parathyroid glands lie behind each 'wing' of the thyroid gland.
The parathyroid glands release a hormone called parathyroid hormone. This hormone helps to control the levels of two salts in the body: calcium and phosphorus.
Hypoparathyroidism occurs when either:
The resulting low levels of 'active' parathyroid hormone causes calcium levels in the blood to fall and phosphate levels to rise.
Why does the body need calcium and phosphorus?
Calcium and phosphorus combine to make calcium phosphate in the body. This is the chief material that gives hardness and strength to bones and teeth. Calcium is also needed as part of the complex mechanism that helps blood to clot after an injury. It is also required for the correct functioning of muscles and nerves. Phosphorus works in conjunction with calcium for these functions. Phosphorus is also needed for the production of energy within the body.
Hypoparathyroidism is rare. It occurs equally in males and females. The age that someone may develop hypoparathyroidism depends on its cause.
Hypoparathyroidism can be:
This is a rare disorder that is inherited. Parathyroid hormone is present in the body but the body is unable to respond normally to it. There are low calcium levels in the blood. Affected people are short and have shortened bones in their feet and hands. They may also have diabetes and an underactive thyroid gland.
This is when someone has the features of pseudohypoparathyroidism, as described above, but they have normal calcium and phosphate levels in the blood.
Individuals can experience different symptoms of hypoparathyroidism in different ways. The symptoms are largley due to the effects of low levels of calcium in the blood. Mild symptoms usually develop slowly and may be fleeting or they may require a small adjustment in medication (see below). Severe symptoms may come on rapidly needing urgent treatment with calcium given intravenously (directly into the veins via a drip).
Any complications that may arise because of hypoparathyroidism are largely due to the low levels of calcium that it causes in the body. Complications can include:
There are a number of things that your doctor may look for when they examine you if they suspect that you have hypoparathyroidism:
Your doctor will suggest some blood tests to confirm hypoparathyroidism. In hypoparathyroidism, your blood calcium level is low, your blood phosphate level is high, and your parathyroid hormone level is low. If your doctor suspects that your hypoparathyroidism is caused by an autoimmune process, they may suggest some other blood tests. For example, they may want to look at your thyroid gland to check that this is not also affected.
Your doctor may suggest some other tests to look for the cause of your hypoparathyroidism, for example:
The aims of treatment are to ensure that there are adequate levels of calcium in the bloodstream. This should mean that you will not suffer from any of the symptoms associated with low calcium levels.
Hypoparathyroidism is treated with calcium and vitamin D supplements taken by mouth. Vitamin D supplements are needed because vitamin D also helps to regulate calcium levels. It stimulates the release of calcium from bone and helps calcium to be absorbed from the intestine and the kidneys. Regular blood tests are needed to ensure that you are taking adequate amounts of calcium and vitamin D. Closer monitoring is needed during pregnancy, if you are also taking other drugs, or if you are also suffering from another illness. Treatment is usually lifelong. These are not dietary supplements that you can buy over-the-counter, but more potent medication requiring careful monitoring by your doctor.
If you experience severe symptoms of low calcium levels, you may need treatment with intravenous calcium (the calcium is given directly into a vein via a drip).
A diet rich in calcium and vitamin D is also recommended.
There are other possible treatments for hypoparathyroidism. If someone is having surgery to remove their thyroid gland, one of the parathyroid glands may be transplanted (or moved) and re-sited in the neck or the arm. This means that it can continue to release parathyroid hormone. There have also been trials carried out where people with hypoparathyroidism have been given parathyroid hormone that has been made synthetically. However, synthetic parathyroid hormone is not currently licensed to treat people with hypoparathyroidism in the UK.
If hypoparathyroidism is adequately treated with calcium and vitamin D, the prognosis the prognosis is good. However, a good prognosis relies on the person who is affected taking their medication daily for life and also having regular blood tests so that the dose of their medication can be carefully adjusted as needed.
During thyroid or neck surgery, care must be taken by the surgeon to identify and locate the parathyroid glands and to avoid damage to them if possible. Anybody who is undergoing thyroid or neck surgery, radiotherapy to the neck or the chest, or chemotherapy (drug treatment for cancer) should be monitored for symptoms and signs of low calcium levels.
You should wear a MedicAlert® bracelet, or carry some kind of ID with you, to identify yourself as suffering from hypoparathyroidism. This is so that if you collapse, are confused or are found unconscious, doctors will know that you need treatment with calcium. Please refer to the information below for details.
Further help and information
MedicAlert1 Bridge Wharf, 156 Caledonian Road, London, N1 9UU
Freephone: 0800 581420 Web: www.medicalert.org.uk
A registered charity providing a life-saving identification system to protect and save lives.Please contact HPTH UK for a 5% discount.
Hypoparathyroidism UK (HPTH UK)
6 The Meads, East Grinstead, West Sussex, RH19 4DFWeb: www.hpth.org.ukA voluntary organisation committed to improving the lives of people with hypoparathyroidism and other parathyroid disorders.
Comprehensive patient resources are available at www.patient.co.uk
Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.
© EMIS 2009 Reviewed: 22 Oct 2007 DocID: 7186 Version: 3
The authors and editors of this article are employed to create accurate and up to date content reflecting reliable research evidence, guidance and best clinical practice. They are free from any commercial conflicts of interest.
Related pages in Patient UKYour Experience in partnership with Hypoparathyroidism UK
Please go to PAtinet UK to add your experience about this condition / medicineView Patient Experience for 'Hypoparathyroidism' (5 there)
Support Groups related to this topicHypoparathyroidism UK
PatientPlus articles related to this topicHypoparathyroidism