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What is Hypercalcemia?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 19 September 2016
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When people have hypercalcemia it means they have an abnormally high level of calcium in the blood. This often occurs when the body fails to regulate calcium levels, most often because the parathyroid gland is overactive and it stimulates the body to release too much calcium into the bloodstream. There are other potential causes of hypercalcemia including lung and breast cancer, and illnesses like tuberculosis. Certain medications like lithium may also cause this condition, as can taking calcium supplements in excess.

Mild hypercalcemia won’t necessarily have any symptoms, but as calcium levels in the blood rise, people may experience a number of symptoms. They might feel nauseous, vomit, need to urinate more often, and have a persistent stomachache. As symptoms progress, muscle and joints may ache, and people might be confused or feel significant fatigue. Age may exacerbate symptoms; those with mildly high blood calcium levels are more likely to have symptoms if they’re over 50. Often no symptoms are present and the condition isn’t detected unless a blood test is done.

Doctors confirm hypercalcemia by looking at blood calcium levels with a simple blood test. However, determining the cause may not be quite as simple. Sometimes a clear cause exists, like presence of tuberculosis or the fact that a person takes lithium. Other times, doctors may need to figure out the root cause. This could include more blood tests to determine parathyroid function, and additional body scans to look for presence of cancer or other illnesses.

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Treatment for hypercalcemia depends on severity and cause. If it’s mild and underlying disease does not cause the condition, people might be told to take extra fluids. When moderate cases present, doctors might choose to treat with IV (intravenous) fluids to help clear the calcium for the body, or a combination of diuretics and IV fluids. Significant severity might indicate dialysis, or treatment with medications like calcitonin, which can help rid the body of excess calcium.

Doctors must also address whatever issue is creating too much calcium in the blood. Thus treatment could be highly variable. When the parathyroid gland is overactive (primary hyperparathyroidism), doctors may elect to remove it because the chance of hypercalcemia remaining is likely if the gland continues to demand the body release more calcium. This demand can over time cause serious complications like osteoporosis, development of kidney stones, or severe heart rhythm irregularities. When the presence of other disease creates hypercalcemia, especially advanced stages of certain cancers, doctors and their patients must decide whether treatment of the condition makes sense and helps improve survivability or patient comfort.

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