Calcium Deficiency

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is calcium deficiency?

Calcium deficiency is a condition in which the body has an inadequate amount of calcium. Calcium is a mineral that is essential for many aspects of health, including the health of bones and teeth, and a normal heart rhythm. This mineral is also required for muscle contractions and relaxation, nerve and hormone function, and blood pressure regulation.

Calcium must be ingested daily and absorbed effectively in order to maintain optimal health. Most people can get enough calcium by eating a variety of foods rich in calcium. Foods that naturally contain calcium include milk and other dairy products; green, leafy vegetables; seafood; nuts; and dried beans. Calcium is also added to orange juice, breakfast cereals, breads, and other fortified food products.

High dietary calcium intake is necessary for infants, children and adolescents in order to promote bone growth and formation. Pregnant women also have higher calcium needs, because it is required for the normal development of fetal bones. In addition, women who have reached menopause need to ensure an adequate amount of calcium intake to reduce the risk of osteoporosis.

Types of calcium deficiency

There are two types of calcium deficiency:

  • Dietary calcium deficiency is a condition in which there is an inadequate calcium intake, which can lead to depleted calcium stores in the bones, thinning and weakening of the bones, and osteoporosis. 

  • Hypocalcemia is a low level of calcium in the blood. It can occur from taking medications, such as diuretics; medical treatments; or disease processes, such as renal failure or hypoparathyroidism.

An insufficient amount of calcium in your diet will generally not cause hypocalcemia. This is because normal amounts of calcium in the blood are so critical to many vital body functions of the nerves, muscles, brain and heart, that your body will pull calcium from the bones as needed to maintain normal blood calcium levels. This enables important processes in the body to continue. However, ongoing dietary calcium deficiency can eventually lead to thinning of the bones and osteoporosis because calcium stores in the bones are not replaced as they are used by the body.
Untreated calcium deficiency can lead to serious complications, such as osteoporosis, hypertension (high blood pressure), and cardiac arrhythmias. Seek regular medical care and follow your treatment plan to reduce the risk of serious complications from calcium deficiency. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have chest pain, a seizure, difficulty breathing, or an unusual change in alertness or consciousness.

What are the symptoms of calcium deficiency?

The symptoms of calcium deficiency vary depending on the type of calcium deficiency, the underlying cause, the severity, and individual factors.

Symptoms of dietary calcium deficiency

There are generally no symptoms of dietary calcium deficiency until bone thinning occurs and fractures develop in weakened bones. Symptoms can be vague, take years to develop, and may not be noticeable until advanced osteoporosis has developed. Symptoms can include:

  • Back or neck pain, which can be severe because of spinal bone fractures

  • Bone pain or tenderness

  • Fracture that occurs with little or no trauma

  • Loss of height

  • Stooped posture due to kyphosis (abnormal curving of the spine and humpback)

Symptoms of hypocalcemia

Symptoms of hypocalcemia, or low levels of calcium in the blood, are generally different from symptoms of dietary calcium deficiency. Some people may have no symptoms of hypocalcemia, while others may experience the following symptoms:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

Calcium deficiency may occur with symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms:

What causes calcium deficiency?

The causes of calcium deficiency differ depending on the type of calcium deficiency.

Causes of dietary calcium deficiency

Dietary calcium deficiency is most commonly caused by failure to consume optimal levels of calcium in the diet over an extended period of time. A deficiency of vitamin D, phosphorus or magnesium, all of which promote calcium absorption and use, can also cause dietary calcium deficiency. Milk and enriched products contain vitamin D and the minerals phosphorus and magnesium. Your skin can also produce vitamin D when exposed to sunlight.

Causes of hypocalcemia

Hypocalcemia, a low level of calcium in the blood, can develop due to a variety of causes including:

  • Certain cancers, including breast and prostate cancer

  • Certain surgical procedures, such as the removal of the stomach

  • Hypoparathyroidism (low levels of parathyroid hormone, which regulates and maintains calcium and phosphorus levels)

  • Kidney failure

  • Medications, such as diuretics and chemotherapy

  • Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)

  • Sepsis (blood infection)

  • Vitamin D, magnesium or phosphate deficiency

What are the risk factors for calcium deficiency?

Risk factors for calcium deficiency vary depending on the type of calcium deficiency.

Risk factors for dietary calcium deficiency

The main risk factor for dietary calcium deficiency is not consuming enough foods containing calcium. Individuals who adhere to a strict vegetarian diet and those with food allergies or lactose intolerance may have difficulty consuming enough calcium in their regular diets. You can reduce the risk of dietary calcium deficiency by consuming low-fat, calcium-rich foods, or using calcium supplements as recommended by your health care provider.

Other risk factors include:

  • Advanced age or past middle age (51 years or older)

  • Alcoholism

  • Dairy allergy

  • Extreme levels of regular, strenuous exercise

  • Family history of calcium deficiency

  • High-protein or high-fiber diets

  • High phosphorus levels

  • Lactose intolerance

  • Postmenopause

  • Pregnancy and breast-feeding

  • Unbalanced weight-reducing diets that do not include calcium-rich foods

  • Vegetarian or vegan diets

Risk factors for hypocalcemia

Hypocalcemia involves low calcium levels in the blood. Risk factors include:

  • Certain cancers, including breast and prostate cancer

  • Certain surgical procedures, such as the removal of the stomach

  • Hypoparathyroidism (low levels of parathyroid hormone, which regulates and maintains calcium and phosphorus levels)

  • Kidney failure

  • Medications, such as diuretics and chemotherapy

  • Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)

  • Sepsis (blood infection)

How is calcium deficiency treated? 

Prompt diagnosis and treatment of dietary calcium deficiency reduces the risk of developing serious complications, such as hypertension (high blood pressure) and osteoporosis. Treatments involve replacing the body’s depleted calcium stores and may include:

  • Adjusting or changing medications that are associated with calcium deficiencies, such as diuretics. You should not change or stop taking any medication without first consulting with your licensed health care provider.

  • Consuming adequate or increased amounts of calcium-rich foods, such as dairy products; green, leafy vegetables; seafood; nuts; and dried beans

  • Consuming calcium-enriched foods, such as orange juice and bread

  • Engaging in a regular, but not extremely strenuous exercise program

  • Taking calcium supplements as recommended by your licensed health care provider. Supplementation may include vitamin D and phosphorous.

Treatment of hypocalcemia, which is a low blood level of calcium, includes diagnosing and treating the underlying disease or cause and any associated complications. Treatment generally includes calcium supplementation. In severe cases, treatment may include hospitalization, close monitoring in an intensive care unit, and the administration of intravenous calcium.

What are the potential complications of calcium deficiency? 

Complications of calcium deficiency can be serious and even life threatening, particularly in some cases of hypocalcemia. You can treat calcium deficiency and minimize the risk of complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Potential complications of calcium deficiency include:

  • Cardiac arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm)

  • Chronic bone and joint pain

  • Depression

  • Gynecological problems, such as infertility and irregular periods

  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)

  • Kyphosis (abnormal curving of the spine and humpback) and loss of height

  • Laryngospasm (spasm of the larynx)

  • Osteomalacia (softening of the bones)

  • Osteopenia (low bone mass)

  • Osteoporosis (thinning and weakening of the bones) and fractures

  • Rickets (low bone mass due to vitamin D deficiency during childhood bone development)

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 9
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Calcium. Office of Dietary Supplements. National Institutes of Health. http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium
  2. Calcium in Diet. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002412.htm
  3. Calcium, Dietary. American Heart Association.  http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/Calcium-Dietary_UCM_305891_Article.jsp