It’s easy to get the thyroid and parathyroid glands confused. Both are endocrine glands that are in the front of the neck. Despite their similar-sounding names, that’s where their similarities end with one exception: Although the parathyroid glands control calcium levels, the thyroid gland manufactures and stores calcitonin, a calcium-regulating hormone.
Let’s break this down so you will know the difference: The thyroid gland produces thyroid hormones which regulate metabolic rates, body temperature, energy levels, play a key role in the utilization of other hormones and vitamins, and are involved in growth and maturation of body tissues. The thyroid gland also stores and manufactures calcitonin.
Parathyroid glands are 4 small glands that reside behind the thyroid gland. Their purpose is to control the calcium in our bodies. Specifically, they control how much calcium is in our bones and blood. Obviously, the focus of the parathyroid glands are much more limited than the thyroid but they do perform a very important function.
When the parathyroid glands become overactive this is called hyperparathyroidism. The symptoms and signs of hyperparathyroidism are:
- Chronic fatigue
- Lack of motivation
- Lack of concentration
- Bone pain
- Trouble sleeping
- Memory loss
- Heartburn (GERD)
- Decreased sex drive
- Thinning hair
- Kidney stones
- Development of MGUS and abnormal protein blood levels
- Rapid heart rate
- Heart palpitations
- High blood pressure
- High liver function blood tests
Generally, the longer you have hyperparathyroidism the more of these symptoms you will experience. As you can tell, some of the symptoms of hypothyroidism overlap with those of hyperparathyroidism. This is why it is vital to have the correct blood work performed when having your thyroid gland evaluated. If your blood tests show elevated calcium levels and decreased levels of vitamin D, hyperparathyroidism is part of your differential diagnosis.
Many patients with thyroid disease are given only one test for thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) when being evaluated. A more comprehensive panel, which includes at least ten different tests, is necessary to fully determine the type and severity of thyroid disease that the patient presents.
In addition to ruling out parathyroid involvement, autoimmune conditions should also be considered when diagnosing those with suspected thyroid disease. It is now accepted that 80-90% of thyroid cases in the U.S. are an autoimmune condition called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Lab tests, which detect antibodies, can be ordered to rule out this common thyroid condition.
The importance of forming a complete diagnosis cannot be overstated. Parathyroid conditions (hyperparathyroidism) can usually be successfully resolved with surgery while thyroid problems require a more complex treatment approach.