What You Need to Know About Calcifications (Calcium Deposits)

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Calcium is an essential and abundant mineral in your body. It mainly is found in your bones and teeth and keeps these structures strong. Calcium also helps your muscles, nerves, and blood vessels function properly.

However, when calcium builds up in soft tissues, where it isn't supposed to be, it leads to calcification or calcium deposits. This causes the affected soft tissues to harden, which can interfere with their function.

This article discusses calcification, including its causes, which areas of the body are affected, and how it's diagnosed and treated.

soda-bone-density
Getty Images

What Are Calcifications?

Calcifications, or calcium deposits, are hard nodules that grow as calcium builds up in soft tissue. They typically aren't painful, except when they develop in areas where they can be pinched, such as in your joints or tendons.

Types of Calcium Deposits

Calcium deposits can develop throughout the body but are more common in certain areas. These include:

  • Breasts
  • Arteries
  • Pericardium
  • Kidneys
  • Joints and Tendons
  • Brain
  • Teeth
  • Pancreas

In the Breast

Calcifications are common in the breasts and frequently found on mammograms. There are two main types of breast calcifications—microcalcifications and macrocalcifications.

Microcalcifications appear as tiny white specks on mammograms and are often grouped in clusters. Most breast cancers start as microcalcifications, but this doesn't mean that all microcalcifications are cancerous. Additional tests, such as biopsies (removing a sample of tissue for analysis in the lab), are often performed to determine whether or not a calcium deposit is related to cancer.

Macrocalcifications begin as microcalcifications and grow into large, round calcium deposits. These types of calcifications usually are benign (noncancerous). Macrocalcifications commonly occur in women over age 50 and are often caused by inflammation, past injuries, or age-related changes in the blood vessels of the breast.

In the Arteries

Calcium deposits can form in blood vessels throughout the body, including arteries of the heart. They can also develop in the valves between the chambers of your heart. Calcifications in arteries often occur as part of the natural aging process.

These vascular calcifications can increase your risk of other health conditions, including:

  • Diabetes
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Atherosclerosis (plaque buildup in blood vessels)

Vascular calcifications can also lead to stenosis of heart valves. This means the valves can grow thicker, become stiff, or completely fuse closed. As a result, your heart has to work harder to deliver oxygen to the rest of your body, which can lead to other heart conditions. In some cases, damaged valves are surgically replaced.

In the Pericardium

The pericardium is a sac around your heart that provides protection and decreases friction between your heart and other internal organs. Calcium deposits can form in the pericardium, but they are not as common as other types of calcifications.

Pericardium calcifications are often caused by pericarditis—inflammation of the pericardium—which can occur in people with heart failure.

In the Kidneys

Calcium deposits in the kidney cause a condition known as nephrocalcinosis. This relatively rare condition usually affects both kidneys at the same time.

The exact cause of kidney calcifications is unknown, but high levels of calcium in the urine—a condition called hypercalciuria—have been shown to be a risk factor.

Some kidney stones can also be made up of calcium.

In the Joints and Tendons

Calcium deposits can also form in your joints and tendons, causing calcific tendinitis. This condition often affects the rotator cuff tendons and has been identified as the primary cause of shoulder pain.

Calcific tendinitis most often affects people aged 30 to 50 and is more common in women than men. This condition's exact cause is unclear, but other medical conditions have been identified as possible risk factors. These include:

  • Gout
  • Diabetes
  • Endocrine diseases
  • Frozen shoulder
  • Rotator cuff tear

In the Brain

Calcium deposits in the brain are also called intracranial calcifications. These can develop as a side effect of aging or as a result of pathology, such as infections, vascular disease, metabolic disorders, diseases that affect the endocrine system, and several rare genetic conditions.

Intracranial calcifications can also occur with benign brain tumors or brain cancer.

Calcium deposits can also form in blood vessels in the brain. This genetic condition, called primary familial brain calcification, can cause physical and psychological symptoms, depending on the affected area of the brain.

In the Teeth

Calcium deposits—commonly known as tartar or calculus—can form on the surfaces of your teeth. Throughout the day, bacteria builds up on the teeth, forming a film called plaque. This film can be removed with proper brushing and flossing habits. However, if it isn't removed, it can eventually become calcifications.

To help prevent calcium deposits from forming on your teeth, brush at least twice daily and floss daily. See your dental provider for a deep cleaning every six months to help remove calcium buildup from your teeth.

In the Pancreas

Your pancreas is an internal organ that aids in digestion and produces important hormones in the body. Calcifications can develop in this organ, particularly in people with chronic pancreatitis or pancreas inflammation.

However, the most common cause of calcifications in the pancreas is excessive alcohol consumption—defined as more than four drinks per day. Genetics also plays a role in increasing the risk of pancreatic calcifications from chronic pancreatitis, as does smoking.

How Are Calcifications Diagnosed?

Methods used for diagnosing calcifications depend on where the deposits are located. For example, calcium deposits in the breasts are usually detected by a mammogram. In some cases, ultrasound may be used as well.

Computed tomography, or CT, scan, can help diagnose calcifications in the internal organs, such as the heart, blood vessels, kidneys, brain, and pancreas. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is also used. Calcifications in the joints or tendons often show up on X-rays.

Calcifications on the teeth can be seen without special imaging procedures.

Preventing Calcifications

Unfortunately, there's no proven way to prevent calcifications. However, healthy lifestyle behaviors can help reduce your risk of conditions that result from calcium deposits. Try these tips:

  • Quit smoking.
  • Use alcohol in moderation.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Limit intake of processed foods.
  • Get adequate sleep.
  • Practice stress management techniques.
  • Exercise regularly.

Treatment for Calcifications

Treatment for calcifications depends on many factors—where the deposits are located, whether or not they are causing you pain, and if they have the potential to cause other health issues.

For example, calcium deposits in the breasts that are not cancerous typically don't require treatment. Other calcifications have a relatively easy fix, like tooth calcifications that only require a deep cleaning at the dentist's office.

There is no specific effective treatment for arterial calcifications. However, because this condition can lead to other heart-related issues, such as heart attack or stroke, your healthcare provider might prescribe medications or recommend lifestyle changes to help control your blood pressure and cholesterol levels—other risk factors for heart disease.

Treatment for calcifications in the internal organs focuses on preventing further organ damage and treating other conditions that lead to additional calcification, such as chronic inflammation. This can include changing lifestyle factors—such as increasing the amount of water you drink—and taking medications to reduce inflammation.

Kidney stones made of calcium may or may not require treatment. Small stones can pass out of the body through your urine. Large stones can cause significant pain and sometimes get stuck along the path to leave the body. A procedure called shock wave lithotripsy can help break the stone into smaller passable pieces. Rarely does this condition require surgery.

Calcifications in joints and tendons can cause inflammation, requiring anti-inflammatory medications and home remedies such as cold packs to reduce symptoms during a flare-up. Chronic pain from these calcium deposits may require surgery to remove them.

Summary

Calcifications are calcium deposits that can form throughout the body. They often affect structures such as the arteries, brain, kidneys, breasts, pancreas, heart, joints, tendons, and the surfaces of teeth.

Calcifications are diagnosed with imaging, including X-rays, ultrasound, CT scans, and MRI. Treatment depends on the location of the deposit. Some calcifications, such as benign breast calcium deposits, don't need treatment. Others, such as calcifications in tendons that are causing pain, may require surgery.

A Word From Verywell

Being diagnosed with a calcification is not an immediate need to worry. Many calcifications are a natural side effect of aging and might not require treatment. Talk to your healthcare provider about your specific condition and treatment plan.

To help prevent other medical conditions that result from calcifications, take your medications as prescribed and follow up regularly with your healthcare provider.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What do calcium deposits mean in the body?

    Calcium deposits occur when calcium builds up in areas of the body where it shouldn't be—blood vessels, internal organs, joints, tendons, or on the surface of your teeth.

  • How fast can calcifications grow?

    Calcifications can grow very slowly—sometimes over months or years.

  • What stage of cancer are breast calcium deposits?

    The majority of breast calcium deposits are not cancerous—they do not represent a specific stage of cancer. In some cases, they can be a very early sign of breast cancer.

  • Should calcifications worry you?

    Calcifications aren't necessarily cause for worry, but they can pose problems. In the joints and tendons, they can cause pain and difficulty with daily function. In blood vessels or the heart, they can lead to more serious health conditions. Talk to your healthcare provider for more information about your calcium deposits.

14 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Kameswari P, Sudhakar S, Avinash K, et al. Review article: breast calcifications on mammographyNACS. 2021;6(2):582-589. doi:10.31031/NACS.2021.06.000632

  2. American Cancer Society. What does the doctor look for on a mammogram?

  3. Wu M, Rementer C, Giachelli CM. Vascular calcification: an update on mechanisms and challenges in treatmentCalcif Tissue Int. 2013;93(4):365-373. doi:10.1007/s00223-013-9712-z

  4. American Heart Association. Problem: heart valve stenosis.

  5. American College of Cardiology. Chest radiograph signs suggestive of pericardial disease.

  6. National Library of Medicine. Nephrocalcinosis.

  7. Dickson FJ, Sayer JA. Nephrocalcinosis: a review of monogenic causes and insights they provide into this heterogeneous conditionInt J Mol Sci. 2020;21(1):369. doi:10.3390/ijms21010369

  8. Kim MS, Kim IW, Lee S, et al. Diagnosis and treatment of calcific tendinitis of the shoulderClin Shoulder Elb. 2020;23(4):210-216. doi:10.5397/cise.2020.00318

  9. Guedes M dos S, Queiroz IC, de Castro, CC. Classification and clinical significance of intracranial calcifications: a pictorial essayRadiol Bras. 2020;53(4):273-278. doi:10.1590/0100-3984.2019.0094

  10. National Library of Medicine. Primary familial brain calcification.

  11. National Library of Medicine. Plaque and tartar on teeth.

  12. Javadi S, Menias CO, Korivi BR, et al. Pancreatic calcifications and calcified pancreatic masses: pattern recognition approach on ctAmerican Journal of Roentgenology. 2017;209(1):77-87. doi:10.2214/AJR.17.17862

  13. Chen Y, Zhao X, Wu H. Arterial Stiffness: A focus on vascular calcification and its link to bone mineralizationArterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol. 2020;40(5):1078-1093. doi:10.1161/ATVBAHA.120.313131

  14. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Treatment for kidney stones.

By Aubrey Bailey, PT, DPT, CHT
Aubrey Bailey is a physical therapist and professor of anatomy and physiology with over a decade of experience providing in-person and online education for medical personnel and the general public, specializing in the areas of orthopedic injury, neurologic diseases, developmental disorders, and healthy living.