The parathyroids are small glands that sit on each side of the thyroid. Typically there are four total, two on each side, slightly behind or embedded in the thyroid. The parathyroid gland produces the parathyroid Hormone (PTH) which participates in control of calcium metabolism, an important aspect of many of the body’s vital functions.
Although rare, tumors can develop on one or more of the parathyroid glands and interfere with the function of the gland(s). The majority of these tumors occur on only one gland, are benign and called adenomas. Tumors on the parathyroid gland may cause a condition known as hyperparathyroidism due to an increase in the production of the parathyroid hormone. The main function of PTH is to regulate calcium. Therefore, those with too much PTH can develop bone loss or frailty because instead of being deposited into the bone, calcium excretion through the kidneys (and thus urine) is increased. Symptoms of hyperparathyroidism are commonly referred to as “moans, groans, stones and bones” because the abnormal regulation of calcium causes bones to ache and may cause a general feeling of fatigue and depression. The development of kidney and bladder stones are also common in parathyroid disorders because of the excessive amounts of calcium being excreted in the urine. Other serious complications can include stomach ulcers, pancreatitis and neurological symptoms.
If it is determined that a tumor on one or more of the parathyroid glands is causing problems, surgery is the mainstay of treatment. Since the parathyroid glands are so small, often not only the tumor but the entire affected parathyroid gland is removed. As long as there is at least one fully functioning parathyroid gland present, normal PTH production and calcium metabolism can continue. Before surgery takes place an ultrasound of the neck is often combined with a nuclear imaging study that uses a marker to identify the abnormal gland. These tools and other technological advancements have enabled surgeons like Dr. Bailey to perform surgery on the parathyroid glands with newer, minimally invasive techniques that leave little to no scarring and carry less risk to the surrounding tissue and structures.