What You Need to Know About Calcium

Learn what you need to know about your calcium levels and whether you should be taking supplements.

Rob Lamberts, MD
5-minute read
Episode #72

What Causes Calcium Problems?

So you see how problems can happen: if you don’t take in enough calcium, your body keeps the levels up in the blood by breaking down the bones. If this happens enough, the bones will get weak, fracturing easily. Another problem is that the parathyroid gland can get sick and put out too much hormone, breaking down the bone and raising the calcium levels too high. This is a condition known as hyperparathyroidism

What Does a High or Low Blood Calcium Number Mean?

Low calcium is dangerous, causes significant muscle cramps, and should not be ignored.

So what does the calcium number on the blood test mean, and what does it mean if it is high or low? There are two types of calcium in the blood: inactive and active. Blood calcium level measures the total calcium in the blood, which—makes calcium levels tricky to interpret because the active calcium level is far more important.

Between a high calcium level and a low calcium level, the most dangerous is the low level.  As I said earlier, calcium is important for muscle contraction. A low blood calcium can cause the muscles to painfully contract, a condition called tetany. Tetany is painful, but what is more dangerous is that the heart doesn’t function as well. That is why the parathyroid and the bones regulate calcium so carefully, and thankfully tetany is rare. 

What Causes Low Calcium Levels?

The most common cause of a low calcium level is medication--specifically high phosphate containing medications, the most common of which are certain enemas and colon cleansing medications. That is especially dangerous for people with kidney problems. There are a few rare causes of low calcium which I’ll skip, but the bottom line is this: low calcium is dangerous, causes significant muscle cramps, and should not be ignored.

What Are Symptoms of High Calcium Levels?

A high calcium level is more common, but thankfully the symptoms are much less dangerous. People don’t usually have any symptoms for a mild elevation of the calcium. If the level gets high enough, it can cause some confusion, anxiety, constipation, and other nonspecific symptoms. The real danger is longer-term, as high calcium levels can cause bone thinning and easy fracture.

When Should You Get Your Calcium Levels Checked?

When should people get calcium levels checked? Fortunately, calcium is part of the most basic blood tests, so it is checked often. Problems with calcium are rare enough, however, that there is no need for routine testing.

Should You Take Calcium Supplements?

What about calcium supplements? In general, people get enough calcium in their diet to not need extra. Dairy is a main source of calcium, but you can get it from other foods--Nutrition Diva can tell you about them. 

Some women should take calcium; current recommendations are that women near, in, or post menopause should take 1000mg calcium plus vitamin D every day, and those with inadequate intake should take 1500 mg. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium and use it properly. 

There is one last issue that I need to touch on, and that is a recent study on the news suggested women taking calcium may have an increased risk of heart disease. That kind of study makes doctors very mad at scientists. It confuses our patients and makes life difficult for us. This is only one study, and there are currently many studies that tell of the benefits of calcium supplements. At the present time I do recommend taking calcium, but I’ll keep my eye on those pesky scientists and change if the evidence sways me.

If you have topics that you want me to cover, send them to housecalldoctor@quickanddirtytips.com, or you can submit them to me on twitter or my Facebook page.

Let me once again remind you that this podcast is for informational purposes only. My goal is to add to your medical knowledge and translate some of the weird medical stuff you hear, so when you do go to your doctor, your visits will be more fruitful. I don’t intend to replace your doctor; he or she is the one you should always consult about your own medical condition.

Catch you next time! Stay Healthy!

Calcium Pills image courtesy of Shutterstock


Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.