Calcification: Types, Causes & Diagnosis


What Is Calcification?

Calcification is the process in which calcium builds up in body tissue where there normally isn’t any calcium. Over time, the buildup can harden and disrupt your body’s normal processes. Calcium is transported through the bloodstream, so calcification can occur in almost any part of the body.

According to the Institute of Medicine, about 99 percent of calcium in the body is transported to teeth and bones. The remaining 1 percent is in the blood, muscles, fluid outside the cells, and other body tissues. A variety of disorders can cause this remaining 1 percent to travel to various areas of the body. This 1 percent can add up and cause problems over time. Treatment may be required to prevent related complications.

Types of Calcification

Calcifications are found in a variety of places in the body. These include: 

  • arteries of the heart
  • brain (cranial calcification)
  • breast tissue (primarily in women)
  • joints and tendons, such as the knee joints and rotator cuff tendons
  • kidneys (as a part of kidney stones, or calcium deposits in the kidneys)

In some cases, calcium buildup is harmless and may be considered a normal part of aging. However, calcification can disrupt organ function and affect blood vessels.

According to the Mayo Clinic, calcification in the arteries is most common in people ages 65 and older. According to the National Cancer Institute, calcification in the breasts is most common in women ages 50 and older.

Causes of Calcification

A variety of factors can lead to calcification. In many cases, it’s a normal part of aging or the result of an injury. For example, a woman may experience an injury to her breast at some point in her life. This could be due to a cyst, infection, radiation, surgery, or trauma. This injury makes fat cells in the breast die, releasing fatty acids. These acids can combine with calcium to create calcifications, which can then enlarge over time.

Other causes may include:

  • infection of the breast, brain, or kidneys
  • disorders of calcium metabolism, such as osteoporosis or hypercalcemia (too much calcium in the blood)
  • genetic or autoimmune disorders that affect the skeletal system and connective tissues
  • open surgery
  • lithotripsy, or shock wave treatment, to break up the stones
  • removal of stones through a small incision between the hips and ribs (percutaneous nephrolithotomy)

According to Harvard University, a common misconception regarding calcifications is that they’re due to a diet that’s too high in calcium. Researchers haven’t found a link between dietary calcium and a higher risk for calcium deposits. This is even true for kidney stones. Kidney stones made of calcium oxalate are the most common type. People more prone to calcium oxalate stones release more calcium in their urine than those who don’t. This is true regardless of how much calcium people have in their diets. 

Diagnosing Calcification

X-rays are the most common diagnostic tools used to detect calcification. These tests utilize electromagnetic radiation to record images of internal organs. There is no discomfort during the procedure, and your doctor should be able to detect any problems right away. A type of X-ray called a mammogram is used to see calcium deposits in the breast tissue.

Blood tests may also be ordered for people with kidney stones. This test can help determine your overall kidney function and determine whether an infection is present.

Calcium deposits aren’t always a sign of cancer, but people with calcification may be tested for cancer at the site to rule it out. Your doctor will order a biopsy to collect a tissue sample through a fine needle. The sample will then be sent to a laboratory for testing. If no cancer cells are present, your doctor will deem the area a benign calcification.

Treating Calcification

Treatment for calcification will depend on where calcium deposits occur, their underlying cause, and what, if any, complications arise. Once you’re diagnosed with calcification, regular follow-up appointments with your doctor will be required to spot potential complications. Minor cases of calcification in the arteries aren’t considered dangerous unless the valves start constricting. In this case, you may need surgery to open the valve or replace it altogether.

Kidney stone treatment can help break down calcium buildup in the kidneys. Options include:

A doctor may prescribe a diuretic known as a thiazide diuretic to prevent future calcium kidney stones. This diuretic signals the kidneys to release urine while holding on to more calcium. 

While calcium deposits in the bones and joints don’t always cause painful symptoms, 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, a doctor may recommend removing the deposits with a needle or through surgical approaches. 

Outlook for Calcification

Calcification itself doesn’t cause symptoms, making it difficult to detect on your own. The key to calcification prevention and treatment is to follow up with your doctor, particularly if you have any underlying health problems. For example, people with heart disease or frequent kidney stones may be susceptible to calcification.

The outlook depends on the location and severity of the calcification. Hardened calcium deposits have the potential to interrupt vital processes, such as brain and heart function. Only a doctor can determine whether your case warrants treatment.

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