Most people have heard of the thyroid gland, but if you haven’t got a clue what your parathyroid is for, you are not alone. These tiny glands, the size of a grain of rice, are neighbours to the thyroid gland and have a distinct function. And, when things go wrong, the symptoms are also quite different.
It is easy to confuse the thyroid and parathyroid. Some people believe they are even part of the same gland. This is a misconception. Both are part of the endocrine system, but they serve different purposes. And when they become dysfunctional, the symptoms differ, too.
Located at the base of the neck (below the Adam’s apple in men) the thyroid and parathyroid glands both produce and release hormones into the bloodstream to send messages to many organs, which in turn affect multiple functions in our bodies. Here’s what you need to know about these glands.
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland at the base of the neck. It affects many functions in our body, as it secretes two key hormones, namely triiodothyronine (T3) and tetraiodothyronine (T4), both of which are made with iodine extracted from our food.
These two hormones regulate general metabolism and therefore affect our health in many ways: the growth of our bones, the transformation of sugar and fats, our mental development, the stimulation of tissue, reproduction and fertility, oxygen consumption and our digestive systems. Thyroid hormones influence the function of multiple organs, among them major organs like the heart, kidney and liver. When there is thyroid dysfunction, our bodies are affected in several noticeable ways.
The parathyroid is not in fact one gland, but four. Though they are small, it is quite normal for them to be up to pea-sized. The parathyroid glands operate in a similar fashion to the thyroid gland, but on smaller scale. While the thyroid releases two key hormones that influence many organs, the parathyroid secretes only one: the parathyroid hormone, which regulates calcium, phosphorous and magnesium levels in our bloodstream.
As soon as the hormone is released and regulation is balanced in our body, we function as we should. But when either the thyroid or parathyroid is dysfunctional, problems develop. A broad range of symptoms may appear.
Here’s what you should look out for.
Symptoms of a dysfunctional thyroid:
– High anxiety or depression, moodiness
– Significant gain or loss of weight
– Sensitivity to hot or cold temperature
– Joint and muscular pain.
Symptoms of a dysfunctional parathyroid:
– Kidney stones
– Abdominal pain
– Osteoporosis (fragile bones that easily fracture)
– Feeling of malaise
– Intense fatigue and weakness.
Since the thyroid and parathyroid act on different functions in our body, an isolated symptom does not prove that either of these glands are malfunctioning. In combination, however, the above symptoms must be taken seriously. If you have developed a cluster of relevant and persistent symptoms, see a specialist. Further tests may be performed to arrive at a diagnosis and assess the appropriate treatment.
By: Dr. Justus Apffelstaedt, specialist surgeon with an interest in breast, thyroid and parathyroid health management, as well as soft tissue surgical oncology.