If the result of a blood test indicates you have elevated calcium in your blood, your doctor will likely repeat the test to confirm the results after you have not eaten for a period of time (fasted).
A number of conditions can raise calcium levels, but your doctor can make a diagnosis of hyperparathyroidism if blood tests show you also have elevated parathyroid hormone.
Additional diagnostic tests
After making a diagnosis of hyperparathyroidism, your doctor will likely order additional tests to rule out possible secondary causes, to identify possible complications and to judge the severity of the condition. These tests include:
Bone mineral density test (bone densitometry). The most common test to measure bone mineral density is dual energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA).
This test uses special X-ray devices to measure how many grams of calcium and other bone minerals are packed into a segment of bone.
Urine test. A 24-hour collection of urine can provide information on how well your kidneys function and how much calcium is excreted in your urine.
This test may help in judging the severity of hyperparathyroidism or diagnosing a kidney disorder causing hyperparathyroidism. If a very low level of calcium in the urine is found, this may indicate a condition that doesn't require treatment.
- Imaging tests of kidneys. Your doctor may order X-rays or other imaging tests of your abdomen to determine if you have kidney stones or other kidney abnormalities.
Imaging tests before surgery
If your doctor recommends surgery, he or she will likely use one of these imaging tests to locate the parathyroid gland or glands that are causing problems:
Sestamibi parathyroid scan. Sestamibi is a radioactive compound that is absorbed by overactive parathyroid glands and can be detected by a scanner that detects radioactivity.
The normal thyroid gland also absorbs sestamibi. To eliminate uptake in the thyroid obscuring the uptake in a parathyroid adenoma, radioactive iodine, which is only taken up by the thyroid, also is given and the thyroid image is digitally subtracted.
Computerized tomography (CT) scanning may be combined with the sestamibi scan to improve detection of an abnormality.
Ultrasound. Ultrasound uses sound waves to create images of your parathyroid glands and surrounding tissue.
A small device held against your skin (transducer) emits high-pitched sound waves and records the sound wave echoes as they reflect off internal structures. A computer converts the echoes into images on a monitor.
Your doctor may recommend no treatment and regular monitoring if:
- Your calcium levels are only slightly elevated
- Your kidneys are functioning normally, and you have no kidney stones
- Your bone density is normal or only slightly below normal
- You have no other symptoms that may improve with treatment
If you choose this watch-and-wait approach, you'll likely need periodically scheduled tests to monitor your blood-calcium levels and bone density.
Surgery is the most common treatment for primary hyperparathyroidism and provides a cure in about 95 percent of all cases. A surgeon will remove only those glands that are enlarged or have a tumor (adenoma).
If all four glands are affected, a surgeon will likely remove only three glands and perhaps a portion of the fourth — leaving some functioning parathyroid tissue.
Surgery may be done as an outpatient procedure, allowing you to go home the same day. In such cases, the surgery can be done through very small incisions in the neck, and you receive only local anesthetics.
Complications from surgery aren't common. Risks include:
- Damage to nerves controlling the vocal cords
- Long-term low calcium levels requiring the use of calcium and vitamin D supplements
Medications to treat hyperparathyroidism include the following:
Calcimimetics. A calcimimetic is a drug that mimics calcium circulating in the blood. The drug may trick the parathyroid glands into releasing less parathyroid hormone. This drug is sold as cinacalcet (Sensipar).
The Food and Drug Administration approved cinacalcet to treat hyperparathyroidism caused by chronic kidney disease or parathyroid cancer. Some doctors may prescribe it to treat primary hyperparathyroidism, particularly if surgery hasn't successfully cured the disorder or a person isn't a good candidate for surgery.
The most commonly reported side effects of cinacalcet are joint and muscle pain, diarrhea, nausea, and respiratory infection.
Hormone replacement therapy. For women who have gone through menopause and have signs of osteoporosis, hormone replacement therapy may help bones retain calcium. This treatment doesn't address the underlying problems with the parathyroid glands.
Prolonged use of hormone replacement therapy can increase the risk of blood clots and breast cancer. Work with your doctor to evaluate the risks and benefits to help you decide what's best for you.
Some common side effects of hormone replacement therapy include breast pain and tenderness, dizziness, and headache.
- Bisphosphonates. Bisphosphonates also prevent the loss of calcium from bones and may lessen osteoporosis caused by hyperparathyroidism. Some side effects associated with bisphosphonates include low blood pressure, fever and vomiting.
Lifestyle and home remedies
If you and your doctor have chosen to monitor, rather than treat, your hyperparathyroidism, the following suggestions can help prevent complications:
Monitor how much calcium and vitamin D you get in your diet. Restricting dietary calcium intake is not advised for people with hyperparathyroidism. The Institute of Medicine recommends 1,000 milligrams (mg) of calcium a day for adults ages 19 to 50 and men ages 51 to 70. That calcium recommendation increases to 1,200 mg a day for women age 51 and older and men age 71 and older.
The Institute of Medicine also recommends 600 international units (IUs) of vitamin D a day for people ages 1 to 70 and 800 IUs a day for adults age 71 and older. Talk to your doctor about dietary guidelines that are appropriate for you.
- Drink plenty of fluids. Drink enough fluids, mostly water, to produce nearly clear urine to lessen the risk of kidney stones.
- Exercise regularly. Regular exercise, including strength training, helps maintain strong bones. Talk to your doctor about what type of exercise program is best for you.
- Don't smoke. Smoking may increase bone loss as well as increase your risk of a number of serious health problems. Talk to your doctor about the best ways to quit.
- Avoid calcium-raising drugs. Certain medications, including some diuretics and lithium, can raise calcium levels. If you take such drugs, ask your doctor whether another medication may be appropriate for you.
Preparing for your appointment
In most cases, elevated calcium is detected by blood tests your doctor has ordered as part of a routine screening, a diagnostic work-up for an unrelated condition or a diagnostic work-up to identify the cause of very general symptoms.
Talk to your doctor about test results if they show you have high levels of calcium. Questions you might ask your doctor include:
- Do I have hyperparathyroidism?
- What test do I need to confirm the diagnosis or determine the cause?
- Should I see a specialist in hormone disorders (endocrinologist)?
- If I have hyperparathyroidism, do you recommend surgery?
- What alternatives do I have to surgery?
- I have these other health conditions. How can I best manage them together?
- Do you have printed material about hyperparathyroidism that I can take home?
To understand the effect of hyperparathyroidism on your overall health, your doctor may ask you questions about possible mild signs or symptoms, including:
- Have you been feeling depressed?
- Do you often feel tired, easily fatigued or generally unwell?
- Are you feeling any inexplicable aches and pains?
- Are you often forgetful, absent-minded or unable to concentrate?
- Have you experienced increased thirst and excessive urination?
Your doctor may ask you additional questions about what medications you're taking and what your diet is like to help determine if you get adequate amounts of calcium and vitamin D.