What is calcification?
Calcification is a gradual accumulation of calcium in an area of your body tissue. Most of the calcium absorbed by your body ends up in your bones and teeth, where it is most needed. Excess calcium is usually dissolved in the bloodstream for excretion in the urine, but it is normal for a certain amount to collect in an area of the body tissues; this collection of calcium then hardens the tissue.
Calcification can be the body’s protective response to injury, as well as part of a natural inflammatory reaction to infection, trauma, or autoimmune disorders. Also, tumors (cancerous or noncancerous) can result in calcification within the tumor tissue.
Calcification becomes a problem when its location, shape or size interferes with the organ function, such as calcifications that harden and block blood vessels in the heart, brain and kidney. For example, with advancing age both the aortic and mitral valves can thicken and develop calcification deposits. This can lead to decreased efficiency in the heart’s pumping ability. Calcifications that are apparent on mammograms may signal the presence of breast cancer, or they may occur with benign breast disease.
Sometimes blood calcium levels become abnormal, signaling the presence of a metabolic disorder in which your body’s ability to use or regulate the level of calcium is compromised.
Seek prompt medical care for serious symptoms, such as bony deformities; depression; difficulty with memory; irritability and mood changes; loss of vision or changes in vision; muscle twitching, spasms or seizures; nausea with or without vomiting; or signs of dementia. Seek prompt medical care if you are being treated for a calcium metabolism disorder but symptoms recur or persist.
What are the symptoms of calcification?
Calcification often produces no symptoms. Instead, calcification is most frequently discovered on X-rays, including mammograms, for example. Some calcification is normal, but even disease-related calcification may not cause symptoms that you will detect.
You may, however, feel the effects of the underlying disorder or process that results in calcification. These symptoms will depend on the organ system affected and the particular disorder. A few of the most common symptoms associated with calcification include bone spurs, calluses, and tartar on the teeth. Left untreated, a mineral metabolism disorder (problems with your body’s ability to use calcium) can lead to calcification in the tissues.
Symptoms of calcification
You may experience calcification symptoms that may or may not be associated with a disorder of mineral metabolism. At times, any of these symptoms can be severe:
- Bone pain
- Bone spurs (occasionally visible as lumps under your skin)
- Breast mass or lump
- Eye irritation or decreased vision
- Impaired growth
- Increased bone fractures
- Muscle weakness or cramping
- New deformities such as leg bowing or spine curvature
- Progressive weakness
- Tartar on your teeth
Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition
In some cases, calcification can be part of a serious condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have complications of calcification, including kidney stones, Paget’s disease (abnormal bone tissue loss and reformation), pineal gland tumors, or severe hypercalcemia (excess calcium in the blood), and experience any of these serious symptoms including:
What causes calcification?
Calcifications can be caused by inflammation or elevated levels of blood calcium, known as hypercalcemia. Calcification can be part of a normal healing response to musculoskeletal injuries. Calcifications are often found in arteries affected by arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), in benign and malignant breast processes, at sites of bone or cartilage injury, and sometimes within cancers. Other tissues may calcify following chronic inflammation or through mineralization of dead tissue (dystrophic calcification).
Several factors increase the risk of developing abnormal calcification. Not all people with risk factors will get calcification. Risk factors for calcification include:
- Autoimmune disorders
- Genetic history of a calcium metabolism disorder
- Internal tissue injuries that cause inflammatory reactions
How is calcification treated?
Calcification is generally not treatable and cannot be reversed. However, calcific band keratopathy, a calcification of the cornea of the eye, can be treated. In addition, disorders that are complications of or associated with calcification are often very treatable. Treatments vary depending on the calcium metabolism disorder itself.
Complications of calcification can be serious, particularly when calcification affects the arteries or is present within a cancer. You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of calcification include: