Calcium is one of the most abundant minerals in the body. It is present in the bones, teeth, and bloodstream. Sometimes, a health professional may find calcium deposits in different organs throughout a person’s body. They call this condition “calcification.”
Calcification can occur with age, but it can also be related to infections, injuries, and cancer. Having too much calcium accumulate in the arteries, kidneys, or pericardium (the membrane that encloses the heart) can be dangerous.
Most often, breast calcifications are benign. Sometimes, however, they can be a sign of cancer.
Read on to learn about the different types of calcification, including their symptoms, causes, and treatments.
Bones and teeth store the greatest amount of calcium in the body. People also have calcium in their bloodstream, but this accounts for only 1% of the body’s total calcium content.
Over time, calcium deposits can form in different parts of the body, including in the:
Small calcium deposits are not likely to alter bodily functions. However, if the deposits become very large, they may begin to interfere with organ function or cause other health issues.
Depending on the location, calcification can be a sign of:
- tissue repair
Each type of calcification has its own characteristics, management, and treatment, depending on where in the body it occurs and what the cause is.
The sections below will discuss these types in more detail.
Artery calcification can start at a young age, but a doctor may only notice it once the deposit is large enough to appear in an imaging scan. Artery calcification at a detectable level typically occurs in adults over 40 years of age.
People with coronary artery disease will have calcification of the blood vessels.
Also, artery calcification can worsen with age. Researchers suggest that 90% of men and 67% of women over 70 years of age have coronary artery calcification.
Artery calcification has no typical symptoms. However, locating it can help a doctor predict the person’s risk of cardiovascular complications.
The following factors may increase a person’s risk of developing coronary artery calcification:
- metabolic syndrome
- high cholesterol
- tobacco use
- high blood pressure
- chronic kidney disease
- high baseline C-reactive protein levels
Treatment tends to include addressing the risk factors that can worsen the artery calcification.
When a person has calcium deposits along the coronary arteries, doctors will recommend risk factor reduction. This is because people with artery calcification have a higher risk of cardiovascular diseases.
Calcification in the arteries that supply blood to the heart increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. It can affect:
- how well the blood flows through the heart
- how the arteries contract and dilate to alter the flow of blood
- how well the arteries react to changes in blood flow
In constrictive pericarditis, a thick calcified lining replaces the normal lining around the heart, or the pericardium. The thicker lining makes it difficult for the lower chambers of the heart to fill with blood.
The symptoms of pericardial calcification can be similar to those of heart failure. They tend to occur once constrictive pericarditis is present.
These symptoms include:
- shortness of breath during physical exertion
- shortness of breath when lying down
- shortness of breath when leaning forward
That being said, in some people, pericardial calcification may not cause any symptoms at all.
One of the main causes of pericardial calcification is pericarditis. This refers to inflammation within the pericardium, of which the cause is often unknown.
Major heart surgery may give rise to subsequent constrictive pericarditis, and sometimes it occurs following a viral infection in the pericardium.
Some other causes of pericardial calcification include:
- radiation therapy
- connective tissue disease
If there are no symptoms of pericardial calcification, the person is not likely to require treatment.
Some people experiencing pericardial calcification also have underlying inflammation. If this is the case, anti-inflammatories such as colchicine, corticosteroids, or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) therapy may help.
A surgical procedure called a pericardiectomy has the potential to cure pericardial calcification. It involves the removal of a portion of the pericardium.
Calcium deposits can also form in the kidneys. This is called nephrocalcinosis.
People with nephrocalcinosis may also have high levels of calcium or phosphate in their blood or urine.
Doctors classify nephrocalcinosis as molecular, microscopic, or macroscopic. The classification depends on the size of the calcium deposit and whether it is visible on an X-ray or microscope.
A doctor will typically find calcium deposits in the renal medulla of the kidney, which is the inner part.
With kidney calcification, many people experience no symptoms at all.
Once a doctor notices calcium buildup on an X-ray image, they will check the person’s blood and urine for:
The following factors could be potential causes of nephrocalcinosis:
- high levels of calcium in the blood
- high levels of calcium in the urine
- high levels of phosphate in the blood
- high levels of phosphate in the urine
- high levels of oxalate in the urine
These conditions can develop due to:
- primary hyperparathyroidism
- vitamin D therapy
- chronically low potassium levels in the blood
When a doctor diagnoses kidney calcification, they will need to determine the cause.
Kidney calcification can develop due to vitamin D therapy, primary hyperparathyroidism, or sarcoidosis, among other things. Treatment will depend and focus on the cause.
Some causes of nephrocalcinosis can lead to chronic kidney disease if a person does not receive proper treatment. Like coronary artery calcification, kidney calcification requires treating the underlying cause and addressing the risk factors.
Radiologists frequently find calcification in joints and tendons. However, they may find it difficult to tell calcification from ossification or a foreign body.
Joint and tendon calcification are both relatively common. For example, about 3–15% of people have calcification of a tendon, called calcific tendonitis.
People with calcific tendonitis may sometimes feel a “pinching” of the calcified tendon. However, the condition may also cause significant pain or no symptoms at all.
Calcification most often affects tendons in the shoulder, but tendons in the wrist, hip, and elbow are also susceptible to this condition.
Calcium pyrophosphate dihydrate crystal disease is often the cause of joint calcification. In fact, research suggests that around 45% of people aged 85 and over have calcium deposits in the cartilage of their joints.
People with painless joint or tendon calcification typically do not require treatment. They may require treatment if they start to experience pain, however.
No treatments can remove calcium deposits from the cartilage of the joints, so doctors tend to rely on glucocorticoid injections, oral colchicine, and NSAIDs, which can help relieve pain and underlying inflammation.
Surgery may be necessary for some people with this condition.
Primary familial brain calcification occurs when abnormal calcium deposits form in the blood vessels in the brain. These deposits typically form in the basal ganglia, which initiate and control bodily movement.
Like many other types of calcification, these calcium deposits will only be visible using imaging scans.
Symptoms usually start to manifest in mid-adulthood, worsening over time. Symptoms involve movement dysfunction and can include:
- dystonia, or involuntary tensing of the muscles
- uncontrollable movements
- an unsteady walk
- slowness of movement
Around 20–30% of people with primary familial brain calcification may also experience psychiatric and behavioral symptoms, including:
- memory loss
- personality changes
- difficulty concentrating
- impaired speech
The cause of primary familial brain calcification is the genetic mutation of certain genes. It is an inherited condition. In about 50% of cases, however, the exact genetic cause is unknown.
Due to mutations of certain genes, calcium deposits form in the affected blood vessels of the brain and brain cells. These calcium deposits then disrupt nerve signal connections between different areas of the brain.
The treatment options for brain calcification focus on addressing and relieving the symptoms, as the calcification itself is irreversible.
One common symptom of brain calcification is dystonia. Some treatment options for dystonia include:
- physical therapy
- speech and voice therapy
- relaxation and stress management
- deep brain stimulation using an implanted device
- oral medication, such as benzodiazepines or anticholinergics
- injected medication
- surgery, if the symptoms do not respond to other therapies
Only a mammogram can detect breast calcification.
Doctors classify breast calcifications based on the size of the calcium deposit.
Macrocalcifications are large, well-defined deposits. These are not usually a sign of cancer.
Microcalcifications, on the other hand, will appear as small specks on X-rays from mammograms. These are not usually a cause for concern either, but having deposits of varying shapes and sizes clumped together in an area of rapidly multiplying cells may be a sign of cancer.
Most breast calcifications have no symptoms.
Breast calcification has no link to dietary calcium. It is a marker of an underlying process within the tissue.
As people age, their bodies have more chances to develop noncancerous breast cell changes that can leave behind calcium deposits.
Some benign processes that can lead to breast calcification are:
- secretion of calcium into the milk ducts
- injuries or infections within the breast
- noncancerous growths in the breast
- breast cysts
- past radiation therapy to the breast
- atherosclerosis of the blood vessels in the breast
Although most breast calcifications are noncancerous, doctors must investigate the tissue further to confirm this. This is because calcium deposits may be the result of ductal carcinoma in situ, which is an early stage and type of cancer that develops inside the milk duct.
People with invasive ductal carcinoma may also have breast calcification. This type of cancer spreads from the milk duct to invade the surrounding breast tissue.
If a radiologist finds breast calcifications when reading a person’s mammogram, their course of action will be to compare this imaging with any prior mammogram(s). If necessary, they may perform additional testing to determine the origins and cause of the calcification. This could involve magnification mammography, ultrasound imaging, an MRI scan, or a biopsy.
Treatment for breast calcifications will depend on the type. If it indicates cancer, some people may require surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy.
Calcification refers to the formation of calcium deposits in different parts of the body, such as the arteries, kidneys, or breasts.
Some types of calcification can be dangerous, and others may simply be a sign of tissue repair.
People may not know they have calcification because it does not always cause any symptoms.
Some types of calcification are irreversible, but depending on the type, there may be ways to reduce pain and lower the risk of complications.