Our bodies are composed of intricate systems of various organs and glands, each with its unique role. Two such glands are the thyroid and parathyroid. These small but mighty parts of the body often go unnoticed—until they cause health issues.
According to the Lancet, there are an estimated 200 million people worldwide affected by thyroid disease. This makes it one of the most common disorders on the planet. On the contrary, parathyroid gland disorders are incredibly rare with an estimated annual incidence rate of around 2 to 4 per 10,000 individuals around the world.
Understanding the differences between the thyroid and parathyroid glands is essential. This is especially if you’re dealing with thyroid or parathyroid concerns, no matter how common or rare they may be. To learn more about the distinctions between these glands—their functions, and the potential health implications—read on below.
Location and Appearance
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland located in the front of the neck, slightly below the Adam’s apple. It’s a small but significant part of your endocrine system, as it produces the thyroid hormones necessary for several bodily processes. On the other hand, the parathyroid glands are even smaller and are usually found on the back side of the thyroid, with two on each lobe. Not many people are aware of the parathyroids, but these glands work diligently behind the scenes.
Function and Hormones
The primary function of the thyroid is to regulate your metabolism. It produces two key hormones: thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). These thyroid hormones influence your metabolism, energy levels, and heart rate, as well as help maintain body temperature. So, if your thyroid is not functioning properly, you may either have a sluggish metabolism or an overly active one. The symptoms will depend on the disorder you have.
The parathyroid glands, on the other hand, release a hormone called parathyroid hormone or PTH. This hormone plays a crucial role in maintaining the right levels of calcium and phosphate in your blood. The balance of calcium and phosphate is essential for your bone health, nerve function, and muscle contractions.
Thyroid Disorders and Their Treatment
Thyroid disorders encompass various conditions that affect the function of the thyroid gland, resulting in either overactivity (hyperthyroidism) or underactivity (hypothyroidism). Hyperthyroidism is commonly caused by conditions like Graves’ disease, where the immune system mistakenly targets the thyroid cells. It may also be caused by nodules on the thyroid that trigger the overproduction of hormones.
Treatment options for hyperthyroidism typically involve medications, such as antithyroid drugs, radioactive iodine therapy to reduce thyroid activity, or, in some cases, thyroidectomy, the surgical removal of part or all of the thyroid gland.
Hypothyroidism, on the other hand, often stems from autoimmune disorders like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. It is generally managed with synthetic thyroid hormone replacement medication, like levothyroxine, to restore normal hormone levels.
In addition to hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism, there are other thyroid disorders like thyroid nodules and thyroid cancer. Thyroid nodules are growths on the thyroid, which are often benign but can also be malignant in rare cases. Treatment depends on the nature of the nodule, with options ranging from monitoring and observation to biopsy and surgical removal.
Parathyroid Disorders and their Treatment
Parathyroids are tiny glands that ensure the stability of calcium and phosphate levels in the body, through the production of PTH. Even a slight imbalance in PTH results in either of the two disorders: hyperparathyroidism and hypoparathyroidism. Hyperparathyroidism occurs when one or more of the parathyroid glands become overactive, which can lead to excessive production of PTH. This can result from a benign tumour on one of the glands (parathyroid adenoma) or, less commonly, from hyperplasia or cancer. Treatment often involves parathyroidectomy or the surgical removal of the affected glands. For patients with hyperplasia, removal of multiple glands may be necessary.
Hypoparathyroidism, on the other hand, results from insufficient PTH production. This is often due to accidental damage to the parathyroid glands during thyroid surgery. Treatment typically includes calcium and vitamin D supplements to maintain proper calcium levels, as well as to prevent symptoms like muscle cramps and tetany.
Prevention and Lifestyle Tips
Although you can’t entirely prevent thyroid or parathyroid disorders, there are steps you can take to support your health. A balanced diet rich in iodine (for the thyroid) and calcium (for the parathyroids) is a good start. Additionally, manage stress, get regular exercise, and ensure you’re getting enough rest.
In the grand orchestra of your body’s functions, the thyroid and parathyroid glands play vital roles. It’s important to understand these glands and their functions, as it empowers you to take control of your health.
If you suspect any issues related to your thyroid or parathyroid, don’t hesitate to seek professional medical advice. With the right care and knowledge, you can keep these tiny but crucial glands in harmony with your overall well-being.