The body’s parathyroid glands—four pea-sized glands in the neck—produce parathyroid hormone (PTH). Primary hyperparathyroidism (PHPT) is a condition in which, most commonly, an overactive parathyroid gland makes too much PTH.
PTH keeps calcium at a normal level in the blood, so it can do its job in the body. For instance, calcium helps nerves work properly and maintains a healthy blood pressure. When blood calcium gets low, PTH brings it back to normal by moving calcium from the bones, kidneys, and intestines into the blood.
Too much PTH causes more calcium to be released from the bones and raises levels of calcium in the blood and urine above normal. Over time, this can result in (weak bones that break easily), kidney stones (small clumps of calcium), and a decline in kidney function.
Women are more likely than men to develop primary hyperparathyroidism, and the risk increases with age.
The most common cause is a single noncancerous (benign) growth called an adenoma on one of the parathyroid glands. An adenoma causes the gland to become overactive and make more PTH. Less often, all four parathyroid glands become enlarged and produce too much PTH. Sometimes PHPT results from radiation to the neck area or the use of certain medications (thiazide diuretics or lithium). In a small number of cases, people inherit a gene that leads to PHPT. Rarely, parathyroid cancer causes PHPT.
Health care providers most often diagnose PHPT with blood tests that detect high calcium and PTH levels. When PHPT is found, further tests may be done to check for complications, including:
Some people have no symptoms (what you feel) at all. While most people with benign PHPT do not have severe symptoms, those with parathyroid cancer almost always do.
The doctor chooses a treatment based on a patient’s age, test results, and which signs or symptoms are present.
Surgical removal of adenomas or enlarged parathyroid glands is recommended for all patients under the age of 50, whether or not they have symptoms. This is because young people tend to develop more complications over time if they are untreated.
Surgery also is suggested for people with:
Non-surgical treatment: checkups and medicines
For some patients without signs or symptoms, doctors recommend regular checkups instead of surgery. Tests should include blood calcium levels, blood tests to check kidney function, and checks of bone density.
A doctor may also prescribe medicines, including:
These drugs tell the body to make less PTH, helping to lower blood calcium levels.
These drugs help keep bones strong by keeping calcium in the bones.
Surgery is highly successful for people with PHPT and provides a cure. In those for whom surgery is not the best option, regular checkups and medicines can help control symptoms and reduce complications. Doctors continue to research the best ways to diagnose and treat PHPT.
The Hormone Health Network is the public education affiliate of the Endocrine Society dedicated to helping both patients and doctors find information on the prevention, treatment and cure of hormone-related conditions.
All Network materials, including the content on this site, are reviewed by experts in the field of endocrinology to ensure the most balanced, accurate, and relevant information available. The information on this site and Network publications do not replace the advice of a trained healthcare provider.
Paid advertisements appear on the Hormone Health Network. Advertising participation does not influence editorial decisions or content.