Calcification

Written by Kristeen Moore | Published on August 30, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is Calcification?

Calcification occurs as a result of calcium buildup in body tissues. Overtime, the buildup can harden and disrupt normal bodily processes. Calcification can occur in almost any part of the body, as calcium is transported through the blood stream.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), about 99 percent of calcium in the body is transported to teeth and bones. The remaining one percent dissolves in the blood. (NIH, 2010) However, a variety of disorders can cause the remaining one percent to travel to other areas of the body. This one percent can add up and cause problems over time. Treatment may be required to prevent related complications.

Types of Calcification

When your bloodstream fails to get rid of excess calcium, it can end up in the:

  • arteries of the heart
  • brain (cranial calcification)
  • breasts
  • 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. (Mayo Clinic, 2011) Calcification in the breasts is most common in women ages 50 and up.

Causes of Calcification

A variety of factors can lead to calcification. In many cases, it is a normal part of aging or the result of an injury. Other factors 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

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.

While calcium deposits are not always a sign of cancer, 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 are diagnosed with calcification, regular follow-up 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:

  • open surgery
  • shock wave treatment
  • removal of stones through a small incision between the hips and ribs

Outlook for Calcification

Unfortunately, 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 regular medical care, 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 bodily processes, such as brain and heart function. Only a doctor can determine whether your case warrants treatment.

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