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Parathyroid glands

2 min read

The parathyroid glands are four small glands, each about the size of a grain of rice. There are usually two on each side of the neck, sitting behind another gland called the thyroid gland.

What do the parathyroid glands do?

The parathyroid glands make parathyroid hormone. Parathyroid hormone helps to control how much calcium is in your body. In particular, it controls how much calcium is:

  • absorbed through your gut
  • carried in your blood
  • stored in your bones.

Calcium is important for the proper functioning of your nerves, your muscles and your bones.

illustration of the endocrine glands

What medical conditions are related to the parathyroid glands?

Sometimes the parathyroid glands produce too much parathyroid hormone. This is usually just because the glands have grown too big, but in rare cases it can be due to cancer.

If you have too much parathyroid hormone, your body can take too much calcium away from your bones, and put calcium into your blood instead. This means that when you have a blood test, it will show the calcium levels are too high.

A loss of calcium from your bones increases the risk of osteoporosis, which is where your bones become thinner and can break more easily. But not everyone who has osteoporosis has a parathyroid problem.

A parathyroid problem might also make you feel tired, and it can cause kidney stones, stomach pains, or pains in the joints.

If a parathyroid gland problem leads to you having one of these conditions, your doctor might recommend surgery to remove one or more of your parathyroid glands. There are different techniques for this kind of surgery. You should talk to your doctor for more information about what treatment you might need and what to expect.

More information

Learn more about the endocrine system and the different hormones released by the endocrine glands.

Last reviewed: December 2016

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Hyperparathyroidism is a disease of the Parathyroid glands

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Hyperparathyroidism is when your parathyroid glands (situated in the neck) produce too much parathyroid hormone, causing abnormally high calcium levels in the blood.

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Four tiny parathyroid glands are located around the thyroid in the throat. ‘Para’ means ‘near’, which explains the name. These glands are part of the endocrine system, which consists of a range of glands that secrete hormones into the bloodstream. The main function of the parathyroid glands is to make the parathyroid hormone (PTH). This chemical regulates the amounts of calcium, phosphorus and magnesium in the bones and blood.

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Osteoporosis is a condition in which the bones become fragile, leading to a higher risk of breaks or fractures. A minor bump or fall can be enough to cause a break in someone with osteoporosis. People with hyperparathyroidism are at increased risk of developing osteoporosis. This fact-sheet explains how hyperparathyroidism can affect your bones, how to find out if you are at risk of osteoporosis, and what you can do to help protect your bone health.

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Osteitis fibrosa cystica is a complication of hyperparathyroidism in which bone is soft, deformed and/or develops cycsts. Surgery is usually required.

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Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia Type 1 is a genetic condition characterised by tumour growth in the endocrine glands. Tumours are typically benign.

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Renal Bone Disease or Renal osteodystrophy is a bone complication of chronic kidney failure or kidney disease. It causes weak bones which fracture.

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Hypercalcaemia refers to high blood calcium levels. It can be mild or severe, and is a common and life threatening cause of bone pain in malignant cancer.

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