What are the parathyroid glands?

Learn about the hormones that can affect your metabolism and overall wellbeing.

The thyroid and the parathyroid glands are located next to each other in the neck but, despite their name, that’s all they have in common.

So, what are the parathyroid glands?

In this blog, we discuss:

  • What are the parathyroid glands and what do they do?
  • What hormones does the parathyroid gland produce?
  • What can go wrong with the parathyroid glands?
  • What are the symptoms of hyperparathyroidism?
  • How is hyperparathyroidism diagnosed?
  • How is hyperparathyroidism treated?

What are the parathyroid glands and what do they do?

Despite their name, the parathyroid glands have nothing to do with producing thyroid hormones; their name refers to the fact that they are located behind the thyroid gland in the neck. There are four parathyroid glands, each the size of a grain of rice, that are responsible for regulating calcium in the body [4]. Calcium is a very important element in the human body and is necessary not only for strong bones and teeth but also for the functioning of the nervous and muscular systems by providing electrical energy.

What hormone does the parathyroid gland produce?

Parathyroid hormone (PTH) - The sole job of the parathyroid gland is to regulate calcium within a tight range by the release of parathyroid hormone. If the glands sense that the level of calcium in the blood is too low they will release parathyroid hormone which extracts calcium from the bones. If they detect excess calcium in the blood, they will reduce the production of PTH.

What can go wrong with the parathyroid glands?

Hyperparathyroidism is the most common condition of the parathyroid glands and is normally caused by a benign tumour affecting one or more of the glands. This causes them to over-produce parathyroid hormones, which means the body extracts more calcium from the bones than it needs and blood levels of calcium rise. The condition affects mostly women and is likely to be diagnosed between the ages of 50 and 60.

Hypoparathyroidism, where the body produces insufficient amounts of parathyroid hormone, is rare. It can develop if the parathyroid glands are damaged during surgery on the thyroid gland.

What are the symptoms of hyperparathyroidism?

Symptoms of high levels of calcium in the blood can come on suddenly or can develop over several years and are not always related to calcium levels. Some people can experience debilitating symptoms with only slightly raised blood calcium levels. Many of the symptoms are non-specific and may be confused with other conditions, especially if they are mild.

Symptoms of hyperparathyroidism, include [5]:

  • Fatigue
  • Aches and pains
  • Aching bones
  • Depression
  • Headaches
  • Heart palpitations
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Low libido
  • Memory loss and confusion
  • Kidney stones
  • Osteoporosis (thinning of the bones)
  • High blood pressure
  • Feeling run down

How is hyperparathyroidism diagnosed?

The effects of elevated calcium levels are progressive meaning that symptoms like osteoporosis will get worse the longer the condition remains untreated. A diagnosis is made through the combination of an assessment of symptoms and a test to measure the amount of parathyroid hormone (PTH) and calcium in the blood.

How is hyperparathyroidism treated?

Treatment may begin with medication to lower calcium levels, but normally surgery is required to remove the affected parathyroid gland.

Where next?

Learn more about other glands and their role in hormone health:

  1. The hypothalamus
  2. The pituitary gland
  3. The adrenals
  4. The gonads
  5. The pancreas, pineal and thymus
  6. Hormone blood test buying guide


  1. nhs.uk. 2022. Overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism). [online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/overactive-thyroid-hyperthyroidism/#:~:text=The%20thyroid%20is%20a%20small,problems%20that%20may%20need%20treatment. [Accessed 12 July 2022].
  2. Urmc.rochester.edu. 2022. Free T4 - Health Encyclopedia - University of Rochester Medical Center. [online] Available at: <https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?contenttypeid=167&contentid=free_t4_thyroxine> [Accessed 12 July 2022].
  3. Yourhormones.info. 2022. Triiodothyronine | You and Your Hormones from the Society for Endocrinology. [online] Available at: <https://www.yourhormones.info/hormones/triiodothyronine/> [Accessed 12 July 2022].
  4. National Cancer Institute. 2022. NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms. [online] Available at: <https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/parathyroid-gland> [Accessed 12 July 2022].
  5. nhs.uk. 2022. Hyperparathyroidism. [online] Available at: <https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/hyperparathyroidism/> [Accessed 12 July 2022].

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