Calcium is one of the most abundant minerals in the body. It is present in the bones, teeth, and bloodstream. If calcium deposits form, the medical names for this is “calcification.”
Calcification can occur with age, but it can also be linked with infections, injuries, and cancer. In addition, it can be dangerous for too much calcium to build up in the arteries, kidneys, or pericardium, the membrane that encloses the heart.
If calcification occurs in one or both breasts, this is usually benign, though it can be a sign of cancer.
Read on to learn about the different types of calcification, including their symptoms, causes, and treatments.
The bones and teeth store the greatest amounts of calcium in the body. People also have calcium in their bloodstream, but this accounts for only
Over time, calcium deposits can form in the:
Small calcium deposits are not likely to alter bodily functions. However, if the deposits become very large, they may interfere with organ function or cause other health issues.
Depending on the location, calcification can indicate:
- 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 describe the 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 on imaging scans. Detectable artery calcification typically occurs in adults
Artery calcification can worsen with age. Researchers suggest that
People with coronary artery disease can have calcification of the blood vessels. This disease develops when the blood vessels that supply oxygen and blood to the heart become blocked or narrowed.
Artery calcification has no typical symptoms. However, locating it can help a doctor predict the person’s risk of 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 involve addressing the risk of complications.
When a person has calcium deposits in the arteries that supply blood to the heart, it
- 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
A thick, calcified lining can replace the normal lining of the heart, which is called the pericardium. The new 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 include:
- shortness of breath during physical exertion
- shortness of breath when lying down
- shortness of breath that
improveswhen leaning forward, as this increases the space between the pericardium and the heart, so the heart can fill with blood more easily
That said, in some people, pericardial calcification may not cause any symptoms.
One of the main causes of pericardial calcification is pericarditis, which is inflammation within the pericardium. The cause is
Some other causes of pericardial calcification include:
- radiation therapy
- connective tissue disease
If there are no symptoms of pericardial calcification, a person is not likely to need treatment.
If there is also inflammation in the area, the doctor may recommend anti-inflammatories, such as colchicine, corticosteroids, or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
A surgical procedure called a pericardiectomy may cure pericardial calcification. It involves removing a portion of the pericardium.
Calcium deposits can also form in the kidneys. This is called nephrocalcinosis. People with this 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.
Many people with kidney calcification have no symptoms of it.
Once a doctor notices calcium buildup on an X-ray, they check the person’s blood and urine for:
High levels of the following
- calcium in the blood or urine
- phosphate in the blood or urine
- oxalate in the urine
These issues can develop due to:
- primary hyperparathyroidism, which involves the parathyroid glands creating too much hormone
- vitamin D therapy
low potassium levelsin the blood
When a doctor diagnoses kidney calcification, they need to determine the cause.
Without treatment, some causes of nephrocalcinosis can lead to chronic kidney disease. Like coronary artery calcification, treating kidney calcification involves treating the underlying cause and addressing the risk factors.
Radiologists frequently find calcification in a person’s joints and tendons. However, they may find it difficult to tell calcification from ossification or the presence of a foreign body.
Joint and tendon calcification are both relatively common. For example, about
People with calcific tendonitis may sometimes feel a “pinching” in the calcified tendon. The condition can 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.
Calcium pyrophosphate dihydrate crystal disease (CPPD), previously known as pseudogout, is often the cause of joint calcification.
CPPD is not gout, but the pain is similar, which is why people used to call it pseudogout.
People with painless joint or tendon calcification
No treatments can remove calcium deposits from the cartilage of the joints, so doctors tend to rely on glucocorticoid injections, oral colchicine, and NSAIDs to relieve any pain and underlying inflammation.
Surgery may be necessary for some people with this condition.
Abnormal calcium deposits can form in the blood vessels of the brain. These deposits typically form in the basal ganglia, structures that initiate and control bodily movement.
These calcium deposits are visible using imaging scans.
The symptoms usually start to appear in mid-adulthood and they worsen over time. A person may experience:
- dystonia, or involuntary tensing of the muscles
- uncontrollable movements
- an unsteady walk
- slowness of movement
Primary familial brain calcification is calcification that does not stem from another health issue and passes down through families. Around 20–30% of people with this also experience:
- memory loss
- personality changes
- difficulty concentrating
- impaired speech
The cause of primary familial brain calcification is genetic mutation. A person inherits it, but in about 50% of cases, 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 treatments focus on addressing and relieving the symptoms because the calcification itself is irreversible.
One common symptom of brain calcification is dystonia. Some treatment options for this include:
- physical therapy
- speech and voice therapy
- relaxation and stress management
- deep brain stimulation via an implanted device
- oral medications, such as benzodiazepines or anticholinergics
- injected medications
- surgery, if the symptoms do not respond to other treatments
Only a mammogram can detect breast calcification.
Doctors classify it based on the size of the calcium deposit or deposits. Macrocalcifications are large, well-defined deposits, and they are not usually a sign of cancer. Microcalcifications appear as small specks on scans. These are also not usually a cause for concern.
However, having deposits of varyious shapes and sizes clumped together in an area of rapidly multiplying cells may be a sign of cancer.
Most breast calcifications cause no symptoms.
Breast calcification has no link to dietary calcium. It is a marker of an underlying process within the tissue.
Advancing age leads to a higher likelihood of noncancerous breast cell changes. These can leave behind calcium deposits.
Some benign processes that can lead to breast calcification are:
- secretion of calcium into milk ducts
- injuries or infections within the breast
- noncancerous growths in the breast
- breast cysts
- past radiation therapy involving the breast
- atherosclerosis of the blood vessels in the breast
Although most breast calcifications are noncancerous, doctors must investigate the tissue to confirm this.
Calcium deposits may result from ductal carcinoma in situ, an early stage and type of cancer that develops inside the milk ducts.
People with invasive ductal carcinoma may also have breast calcification. This type of cancer spreads from the milk duct into surrounding breast tissue.
If a radiologist finds breast calcifications on a person’s mammogram, they compare this imaging with any prior mammograms. They may then do other tests 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 calcification depends on the type. If the calcification stems from cancer, the treatment may involve surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy.
Sometimes, calcification can cause pain in the shoulder area. Doctors may call this calcific tendinitis of the rotator cuff or rotator cuff calcific tendinopathy (RCCT).
The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that surround the ball of the shoulder joint and keep it in the shoulder socket.
If a person has RCTT, there may be:
- reduced range of movement in the shoulder
- calcifications that show up on imaging tests
Some people with calcium deposits have no symptoms, however.
Doctors do not know precisely why RCTT occurs. Some experts have suggested that it may be a degenerative condition that affects the tendons, but many people find that their symptoms improve with rest, suggesting that it is not degenerative.
- physical therapy
- the use of NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
If these do not help, a doctor may recommend steroid injections or irrigation with an anesthetic or saline solution. In some cases, a person may need surgery to remove calcium deposits, but this is usually a last resort.
Calcium is a major component of teeth. Together with magnesium, it plays an
However, additional calcifications can sometimes build up in dental pulp, which is in the middle of the tooth, and around the roots of the teeth.
This may be a sign of an underlying problem, such as kidney stones, according to a
In addition, dental calcifications can be a sign of familial hyperphosphatemic tumoral calcinosis. This is a
Pancreas calcifications can occur if a person has chronic pancreatitis, and particularly if this is due to a high consumption of alcohol, according to a 2017 study.
Signs and symptoms of chronic pancreatitis include:
- abdominal pain, which may spread to the back
- loss of appetite and weight
- nausea and vomiting
- jaundice, which can lead to a yellowing of the whites of the eyes
- thirst and a need to urinate frequently
The main reason why pancreatic calcifications develop is chronic pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas.
Risk factors include:
- high alcohol consumption
- genetic factors
- having a medical condition, such as cystic fibrosis
- having a benign or cancerous tumor in the pancreas
If calcifications occur as part of chronic pancreatitis, there may already be permanent damage to the pancreas.
Ways of relieving symptoms include:
- limiting or avoiding alcohol consumption
- avoiding smoking
- taking pain relief medication
If a person has severe pain, surgery may be an option.
Calcification refers to the formation of calcium deposits. This can happen in various areas of the body, such as the arteries, kidneys, and breasts. It does not always cause symptoms.
Some types of calcification can be dangerous and others may simply be a sign of tissue repair.
Calcification may be irreversible, depending on the type. Even if it is, there may be ways to reduce pain and the risk of complications.