Hypocalcemia is a medical condition characterized by lowered levels of calcium in the blood. Much of the calcium in our blood is bound up in proteins, but about half of it is present in solution, as ionized calcium. This second type is what is regulated by the body, and hypocalcemia sets in when this type of calcium gets too low. Calcium is an essential part of many chemical functions in the body, including the transmission of signals along nerves, as well as various cellular processes. For this reason, serious hypocalcemia can be life-threatening if left untreated.
It is common knowledge that our bones depend on calcium for their own maintenance and repair. Almost all -- 99% -- of the calcium in our bodies is located in the bones and teeth. The remaining one percent is located in fluids such as the blood. Its delicate balance is maintained by the parathyroid and calcitonin hormones, as well as vitamin D. Calcium levels are also indirectly influenced by magnesium and phosphorus levels.
The symptoms of hypocalcemia are many, but one of the first to look for is the twitching of nerves or muscles, called neuromuscular irritability. Calcium acts as a neurotransmitter, and causes this symptom if it is not present in high enough amounts. Muscle cramps, as well as numbness and tingling in the extremities, are not uncommon.
Some of the more severe symptoms are mental confusion and an irregular heartbeat. These two, especially the last, indicate the need for emergency medical care. Even so, it is very rare for someone to die as a direct result of hypocalcemia, but it has occurred.
Many factors can contribute to the presence of hypocalcemia. It can present as a symptom of numerous different disorders, including kidney failure, a vitamin D deficiency, or alcoholism. Hypocalcemia can also be one of the complications from chemotherapy. The excessive intake of caffeine and other chemicals found in soft drinks can leach calcium out of the bones, and certain antibiotics can inhibit the body's ability to absorb calcium.
Hypocalcemia is an entirely preventable disorder. A proper diet, which includes dairy products, grains, and leafy greens like spinach, should be enough to effectively prevent it. Calcium supplements can also help, but it is important to remember that calcium must be accompanied by vitamin D in order for the body to take it up. Many calcium supplements are made with a certain amount of vitamin D included, specifically for this purpose.