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Hyperparathyroidism: How to detect symptoms, get treatment

“The tumor is like the Hulk. It’s angry all the time, it’s releasing that hormone and [the parathyroid glands] loses the ability to control itself."

TAMPA, Fla. — Most people have heard of the thyroid gland but you may not be as familiar with the parathyroid glands that are hard at work controlling your body’s calcium levels. 

When they’re not working correctly, doctors call the effects “unpredictable,” from mild symptoms all the way to bone loss, cancers and decreased life expectancy. Thankfully, once it’s diagnosed, medical experts say it’s very treatable.

Mark Messingham is an active 76-year-old, who says around 6 months ago, he was feeling pretty out of sorts. 

“I was beginning to get a little early osteoporosis, which is silly, because I not only exercise at the golf course but I go to the gym a lot. I ride a bike. I ride a motorcycle.” 

He says he was also experiencing muscle aches and taking long naps in the afternoon. Thankfully, Messingham decided to talk to his doctor about all of the changes he was experiencing and learned he was dealing with the effects of hyperparathyroidism. It can present with all sorts of unwanted symptoms from fatigue and lack of concentration, to aches and even kidney stones.

Dr. Jose Lopez is a parathyroid surgery expert at Tampa General Hospital and explains they’re tiny glands, “usually the size of a grain of rice. The gland usually works like the thermostat at home, so when your calcium levels drop, these glands get activated.” 

He explains they work to regulate the body’s calcium levels, which for most adults should be in the 9.2 to 9.7 range. For patients dealing with hyperparathyroidism, one or more of the glands become overactive, creating a benign tumor and loss of calcium control which leads to higher levels. 

“The tumor is like the Hulk. It’s angry all the time, it’s releasing that hormone and it loses the ability to control itself,” explains Dr. Lopez.

Surgery is the only treatment option but nearly 100 percent of cases are outpatient and Dr. Lopez says most are done in about 30 minutes. Most adults have four parathyroid glands. 

Dr. Lopez says in Messingham’s case, he removed 3 and a half of them, without any trouble. Most patients are assessed about two months after surgery and Messingham’s calcium levels were back to normal. Dr. Lopez says that report is a good window into the future. 

Best of all, Messingham says he’s back to his normal energetic self, too. “I was back on the golf course in 5 days. I can play 36 in the heat, in fact, I played 27 last week, came home and waxed my wife’s car.”

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