Calcification: Types, Causes & Diagnosis
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Calcification

What is calcification?

Highlights

  1. When calcium builds up in places where it doesn’t usually appear, like the coronary arteries or brain, it is known as calcification.
  2. Management of calcification depends upon the location, cause, and whether any complications occur.
  3. Calcification can be caused by injury, infection, and autoimmune disorders. However, it is not caused by a calcium-rich diet.

Calcification happens when calcium builds up in body tissue, blood vessels, or organs. This buildup can harden and disrupt your body’s normal processes. Calcium is transported through the bloodstream. It is also found in every cell. As a result, calcification can occur in almost any part of the body.

According to the Institute of Medicine, about 99 percent of your body’s calcium is in your teeth and bones. The other 1 percent is in the blood, muscles, fluid outside the cells, and other body tissues. Some disorders cause calcium to deposit in places where it does not typically belong. Over time, this can add up and cause problems. You may need treatment to prevent complications if you have this extra calcium buildup.

Types of calcification

Calcifications can form in many places throughout your body, including: 

  • small and large arteries
  • heart valves
  • brain, where it is known as cranial calcification
  • joints and tendons, such as knee joints and rotator cuff tendons
  • soft tissues like breasts, muscles, and fat
  • kidney, bladder, and gallbladder

Some calcium buildup is harmless. These deposits are believed to be the body’s response to inflammation, injury, or certain biological processes. However, some calcifications can disrupt organ function and affect blood vessels.

According to the Division of Cardiology at UCLA School of Medicine, most adults greater than 60 years old have calcium deposits in their blood vessels.

Causes of calcification

Many factors have been found to play a role in calcification.

These include:

  • infections
  • calcium metabolism disorders that cause hypercalcemia (too much calcium in the blood)
  • genetic or autoimmune disorders affecting your skeletal system and connective tissues
  • persistent inflammation

According to Harvard University, a common misconception is that calcifications are caused by a calcium-rich diet. However, researchers haven’t found a link between dietary calcium and a higher risk for calcium deposits. This is also true for kidney stones. Most kidney stones are made of calcium oxalate. People who get calcium oxalate stones release more calcium in their urine than those who don’t. This disparity happens no matter how much calcium people have in their diets.

Learn more: Kidney stones »

Diagnosing calcification

Calcifications are usually found by X-rays. X-ray tests use electromagnetic radiation to take pictures of your internal organs. X-rays usually cause no discomfort. Your doctor will likely detect any issues with the X-rays right away.

Your doctor may also order blood tests. For example, if you have kidney stones, these tests can determine your overall kidney function.

Sometimes calcium deposits are found in areas of cancer. A calcification is usually tested to rule out cancer as a cause. Your doctor will order a biopsy to collect a tissue sample, often through a fine needle. The sample is then sent to a laboratory for testing. If there aren’t any cancer cells detected, your doctor will label the calcification as benign.

Breast calcifications

Breast calcifications occur when calcium builds up within the soft tissue of the breast. There are two main types of breast calcifications: macrocalcifications (large) and microcalcifications (small). According to the National Cancer Institute, macrocalcifications in the breasts are most common in women over 50 years old. Men can get breast calcifications too, but not as often.

Breast calcifications happen for a number of reasons. Breast injuries, cell secretions, infections, and inflammation can all cause breast calcifications. You might also get calcifications if you’ve had breast cancer or radiation therapy for cancer.

Most breast calcifications are not cancerous. This is especially true for macrocalcifications, or large calcium buildups. Smaller calcifications, or microcalcifications, are often not cancerous either. However, some microcalcification patterns may be signs of early breast cancer.

Breast calcifications are too small to be found during a regular breast exam. Your doctor usually spots these deposits during a mammogram of your breast tissue. Your doctor may ask you to schedule a follow-up appointment if any calcifications need to be checked again. They may also take a biopsy for testing of calcifications that might be suspicious looking.

Your doctor may suggest minor surgery to remove calcifications in order to look at them more closely.

Getting regular mammograms at an appropriate age can help track breast calcifications if they are present. The earlier that concerning breast changes are discovered, the more likely you are to have a positive outcome.

Treating calcification

Calcification treatment depends on several factors:

  • where calcium deposits occur
  • their underlying cause
  • what, if any, complications arise

Your doctor will require regular follow-up appointments to check for potential complications once calcifications have been found. Minor artery calcifications aren’t considered dangerous. Heart valves can also develop calcifications. In this case, you may need surgery to open or replace the valve if the calcium buildup is severe enough to affect the valve’s function.

Kidney stone treatments help break down calcium buildup in the kidneys. Your doctor may prescribe a diuretic called thiazide to prevent future calcium kidney stones. This diuretic signals the kidneys to release urine while holding on to more calcium. 

Calcium deposits in your joints and tendons don’t always cause painful symptoms, but they can affect range of motion and cause discomfort. Treatments may include taking anti-inflammatory medicines and applying ice packs. If the pain doesn’t go away, your doctor may recommend surgery. 

Preventing calcifications

If you’re over 65 years old, see your doctor regularly for blood tests to evaluate your calcium levels, along with other measurements of your body’s functions. If you’re under 65 years old, calcifications can be more common if you were born with a heart defect or kidney-related issues. If you are aware of any of these conditions, ask your doctor about getting tested for calcifications.

Some medications can affect your body’s calcium levels. Cholesterol medication, blood pressure medication, and hormone replacement therapy are common medications that affect how calcium is used in your body. Talk to your doctor if you’re taking any of these or related treatments to understand the effects of these treatments on calcium levels.

If you frequently take calcium carbonate supplements or Tums, you risk raising your calcium to high levels. Problems with the kidney or the four small glands on the back of the thyroid, the parathyroid, can also cause calcium levels in your blood to rise too high.

The amount of calcium you need per day is based on your age. Talk to your doctor about what dose of calcium is right for you based on your age, gender, and other health issues.

Smoking is associated with increased calcifications in the heart and major arteries. As smoking is known to be a major risk factor for developing heart disease, these calcifications may also play a role. Overall, quitting smoking will have both short- and long-term benefits, especially for your heart, blood vessels, and brain.

There is no proven way to prevent calcifications, as they are a result of a variety of biological processes. Quitting smoking and changing diet may impact formation of calcifications, depending on the location. Kidney stones may form less often with certain dietary changes. Talk to your doctor about ways to incorporate a healthy diet into your lifestyle.

Get help with quitting smoking »

Outlook for calcification

Calcifications do not cause symptoms on their own. They are often detected when X-rays are done for other reasons. Talk to your doctor if you have any underlying health problems. For example, you may be susceptible to calcifications if you have heart disease, kidney disease, or if you smoke.

Your outlook depends on the location and severity of the calcifications. Hardened calcium deposits can interrupt vital processes in the brain and heart. Calcifications in your blood vessels can lead to coronary heart disease. You and your doctor can talk about the best ways to manage the health issues that may put you at risk for calcifications. 

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