There’s a reason your mother always told you to finish your milk: it’s a good source of calcium, one of the most important and common minerals in your body.
Calcium’s benefits are widespread. It helps keep your bones and teeth strong, and also helps your nerves work more efficiently, your muscles squeeze and relax, and your blood clot.
But what happens if there’s too much calcium in your blood? It causes something known as hypercalcemia, a potentially serious condition that can affect your kidneys, bones, brain and heart. Here are five things you should know about elevated calcium:
1. Your parathyroid glands are the most common culprit.
Parathyroid glands are small glands in your neck that control the calcium levels in your blood. When one or more of these glands stops responding to normal feedback, they can cause calcium levels in your blood to rise.
Other causes of high calcium levels include hereditary disorders, medication side effects, certain infections, inflammatory diseases such as sarcoidosis or, in rare cases, cancer.
2. Elevated calcium can cause a wide range of symptoms.
Traditionally, symptoms of elevated calcium levels were associated with the mantra, “stones, bones, moans and groans,” which refers to kidney stones, osteoporosis, psychiatric disturbances and abdominal pain.
Today, however, elevated calcium and parathyroid disease are usually caught before symptoms progress to that point. Common symptoms today include fatigue (which may be severe and debilitating), low energy, muscles weakness, achy muscles and bones, poor concentration, memory loss, and irritability.
Many of these symptoms are non-specific and can fly under the radar. In fact, many people with elevated calcium levels just feel like they are getting old, which is why the collection of symptoms has also been described as “premature aging.”
3. Symptoms and calcium levels aren’t always correlated.
This observation goes both ways. Some people with very mild elevations in their calcium have pretty severe symptoms, which may include frequent kidney stones or fatigue that prevents them from living their lives.
On the other hand, some people with remarkably high calcium levels have very few symptoms. That can be dangerous too, because in many cases, the bones can be getting weak or the kidneys could be getting injured without the person feeling anything at all.
Everyone handles calcium a little differently, and your body has many tricks to deal with the elevated calcium on its own.
4. Elevated calcium should not be ignored.
Even if you feel well, elevated calcium could indicate that something is wrong. When you have elevated calcium noted on your labs, your doctor will likely want to check your parathyroid hormone level.
A parathyroid hormone level can be tested with a simple blood draw and is the most cost-effective way to evaluate elevated calcium. If it is high, you likely have hyperparathyroidism and should be evaluated by someone who treats parathyroid disease.
If the parathyroid hormone is low, more investigation is needed. Sometimes this involves a thorough family history, a close look at your medications or additional lab work.
5. Surgery is often an effective solution.
If your calcium is elevated from parathyroid disease, removal of the abnormal parathyroid gland or glands can provide a cure.
Surgery is safe and effective and can often be performed in an outpatient setting or with less than one day spent in the hospital. Many symptoms improve almost immediately, while many continue to improve for up to several months afterward. People’s bones also tend to get stronger after surgery.
Some people would rather continue observing their calcium levels until they experience undesirable symptoms. This approach should be undertaken with caution because some of calcium’s effects on the bones, kidneys and blood vessels can be irreversible even in people who do not feel any symptoms.
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