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Parathyroid glands

Dr Kieran Kusel and Dr Henry Knipe et al.

The parathyroid glands are endocrine glands located in the visceral space of the neck. They produce parathyroid hormone, which controls calcium homeostasis. 

There are normally two pairs of parathyroid glands, inferior and superior, although there can be up to twelve in number. The parathyroid gland is oval or bean-shaped. It typically measures 6 x 4 x 2 mm and weighs 40-60 mg 1-2

The parathyroid glands can have a variable location (from carotid bifurcation to anterior mediastinum) but are usually in close relation to the thyroid gland, in the region of the tracheo-esophageal groove:

  • superior parathyroid glands: located at the posterior aspect of the middle third of the thyroid gland
  • inferior parathyroid glands: located lateral to the inferior pole of the thyroid gland

The parathyroid glands are usually extracapsular to the thyroid but sometimes they may lie intracapsular. 

Lymphatic vessels drain into the pretracheal, prelaryngeal and jugulodigastric lymph nodes.

Sympathetic vasoconstrictor fibers from the middle and inferior cervical ganglia enter with the arteries.

  • supernumerary glands: incidence ~15% (range 3-25%) 2-3
  • fewer than four parathyroid glands: incidence <3% 2
  • ectopic parathyroid gland: most commonly inferior to the inferior pole of the thyroid 1

Ultrasound and nuclear medicine are the predominant parathyroid imaging techniques with cross-sectional (CT/MRI) imaging usually reserved to confirm the anatomical position of ectopic parathyroid adenomas 2-3

  • high-frequency (5-10 MHz) probe
  • homogeneously hypoechoic as compared to the echogenic thyroid
  • superior parathyroid glands derive from the fourth pharyngeal pouch
  • inferior parathyroid glands derive from the third pharyngeal pouch
  • see branchial apparatus
Anatomy: Head and neck

Anatomy: Head and neck

Article information

rID: 24088
System: Head & Neck
Section: Anatomy
Synonyms or Alternate Spellings:
  • Parathyroid gland
  • Parathyroids

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Cases and figures

  • Figure 1: posterior view
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  • Figure 2: anterior view
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  • Case 1: parathyroid adenoma
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  • Case 1: parathyroid adenoma
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