Journal of Postgraduate Medicine
 Open access journal indexed with Index Medicus & ISI's SCI  
Users online: 1166  
Home | Subscribe | Feedback | Login 
About Latest Articles Back-Issues Articlesmenu-bullet Search Instructions Online Submission Subscribe Etcetera Contact
 ::  Similar in PUBMED
 ::  Search Pubmed for
 ::  Search in Google Scholar for
 ::Related articles
 ::  Article in PDF (1,327 KB)
 ::  Citation Manager
 ::  Access Statistics
 ::  Reader Comments
 ::  Email Alert *
 ::  Add to My List *
* Registration required (free) 

  IN THIS Article
 ::  Abstract
  ::  Introduction
  ::  Case Report
  ::  Discussion
  ::  Conclusion
 ::  References
 ::  Article Figures

 Article Access Statistics
    PDF Downloaded20    
    Comments [Add]    
    Cited by others 1    

Recommend this journal


  Table of Contents     
Year : 2019  |  Volume : 65  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 237-240

Retropharyngeal ectopic parathyroid adenoma versus lymph node: Problem solving with CT neck angiogram

Department of Radiology and Medical Imaging, University of Virginia Health System, Charlottesville, VA, USA

Date of Submission24-Mar-2019
Date of Decision07-Jun-2019
Date of Acceptance17-Jun-2019
Date of Web Publication14-Oct-2019

Correspondence Address:
P P Batchala
Department of Radiology and Medical Imaging, University of Virginia Health System, Charlottesville, VA
Login to access the Email id

Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/jpgm.JPGM_162_19

Rights and Permissions

 :: Abstract 

A 66-year-old female underwent preoperative evaluation for primary hyperparathyroidism. Ultrasound (US) neck and technetium (Tc)-99m-sestamibi planar scintigraphy were negative, but single photon emission computed tomography/computed tomography (SPECT/CT) demonstrated a tracer-avid retropharyngeal nodule compatible with parathyroid adenoma (PTA). A retrospective review of CT neck angiogram (CTA) and neck magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) performed 4 months earlier for stroke evaluation revealed arterial phase hyperenhancing retropharyngeal tissue, which had been dismissed as a nonpathological lymph node. “Polar vessel sign” seen in two-thirds of PTA was also present on retrospective review of the CTA. The concordant findings between SPECT/CT and CTA were indicative of a solitary undescended ectopic PTA in the retropharyngeal space, an uncommon location. A successful surgical cure was achieved after minimally invasive parathyroidectomy. This case highlights the retropharyngeal space as an important ectopic site of PTA, limitation of US, and Tc-99m-sestamibi planar scintigraphy in identifying retropharyngeal PTA. We also discuss the role of CT and MRI and the challenge in differentiating retropharyngeal PTA from a lymph node.

Keywords: Ectopic, parathyroid adenoma, retropharyngeal, Tc-99m-sestamibi scan

How to cite this article:
Batchala P P, Rehm P K. Retropharyngeal ectopic parathyroid adenoma versus lymph node: Problem solving with CT neck angiogram. J Postgrad Med 2019;65:237-40

How to cite this URL:
Batchala P P, Rehm P K. Retropharyngeal ectopic parathyroid adenoma versus lymph node: Problem solving with CT neck angiogram. J Postgrad Med [serial online] 2019 [cited 2023 Oct 4];65:237-40. Available from:

 :: Introduction Top

Surgical excision of parathyroid adenoma (PTA) is the standard of care for symptomatic primary hyperparathyroidism (PHPT) and for asymptomatic PHPT patients who satisfy the National institute of Health guidelines.[1] The goal of preoperative imaging in PHPT is to identify solitary PTA or the presence of multigland disease.[2] Localization of a solitary PTA on preoperative imaging facilitates minimally invasive parathyroidectomy (MIP).[2] When localization is negative, patient undergoes a standard four-gland bilateral neck exploration followed by total or subtotal parathyroidectomy. Intraoperative serial venous blood parathormone (PTH) assay is frequently used to assess adequacy of the excision.[3]

Most solitary PTA is perithyroidal in location. The prevalence of ectopic PTA is 6.3–16% in patients operated for PHPT.[4] Identifying an ectopic PTA on preoperative imaging is important to select the appropriate surgical approach and incision site, and to avoid potential surgical failure. Tc-99m-sestamibi single photon emission computed tomography/computed tomography (SPECT/CT) is widely used for localizing PTA including ectopic PTA. Ultrasound (US) is frequently used in combination particularly to evaluate coexisting thyroid disease. Contrast-enhanced 4D-CT or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) with contrast is often used as problem-solving tools. In spite of the various imaging techniques, the challenge remains in differentiating PTA from its closest mimics, namely thyroid nodules and lymph nodes preoperatively.[3] Here, we report a case of undescended retropharyngeal ectopic PTA that was previously dismissed as a nonpathological lymph node on CT and MRI but later identified on Tc-99m-sestamibi SPECT/CT in an elderly woman with PHPT. She was treated successfully by MIP.

 :: Case Report Top

A 66-year-old female with a recent clinical diagnosis of PHPT was referred for surgical evaluation. She complained of urinary urgency but was otherwise asymptomatic. Physical examination was significant for right-sided weakness from a cerebrovascular stroke sustained 4 months earlier. Her blood calcium was elevated at 11.8 mg/dl (normal range: 8.5–10.5 mg/dl), phosphorus was decreased at 2.0 mg/dl (normal range: 2.6–4.7 mg/dl), and PTH level was elevated at 196.9 pg/ml (normal range: 9–77 pg/ml) indicative of PHPT. Bone densitometry revealed osteoporosis in the left femoral neck. Patient consented for recommended parathyroidectomy. Preoperative imaging for localizing PTA was ordered. Combined neck US and dual phase Tc-99m-sestamibi scintigraphy with SPECT/CT are used as first-line imaging at our institution for evaluating PHPT. Neck US was negative for PTA or thyroid disease. Dual phase Tc-99m-sestamibi planar and SPECT/CT scintigraphy was obtained. Anterior planar images at 15 [Figure 1]a and 90 min [Figure 1]b were negative for PTA. Maximum intensity projections of the SPECT in anterior [Figure 2]a and lateral views [Figure 2]b showed focal intense tracer medial and posterior to left submandibular salivary gland, respectively. SPECT/CT fusion images [Figure 3] revealed retropharyngeal CT-isodense and tracer-avid soft tissue compatible with an ectopic undescended PTA in the clinical setting. However, a granulomatous or metastatic lymph node could have a similar appearance. We retrospectively reviewed the patient's neck CT angiogram (CTA) [Figure 4] and MRI [Figure 5] done 4 months earlier at the time of stroke evaluation. The imaging revealed an intensely enhancing 0.5 × 1.3 × 3.1 cm left-sided retropharyngeal oval-shaped discoid nodule superior to the upper margin of left thyroid lobe which previously had been dismissed as a nonpathological lymph node. CTA also showed a prominent vessel coursing toward the lower pole of the adenoma [Figure 4]c, described in the literature as “polar vessel sign,” an imaging marker for PTA.[5] Our patient underwent minimally invasive parathyroidectomy with successful surgical cure on the basis of intraoperative PTH monitoring. A 1350 mg hypercellular parathyroid (normal 30-35 mg) was removed per pathology.
Figure 1: Dual-phase Tc-99m-sestamibi scintigraphy. Anterior planar images at (a) 15 and (b) 90 min were negative for PTA

Click here to view
Figure 2: Dual-phase Tc-99m-sestamibi SPECT/CT. Maximum intensity projection (a) anterior and (b) lateral images of the SPECT showed focal intense tracer uptake (arrows) medial to left submandibular salivary gland in anterior view and posterior to the gland in lateral view suspicious for ectopic PTA

Click here to view
Figure 3: (a-c) Axial, (d-f) coronal, (g-i) sagittal SPECT, noncontrast CT, and SPECT/CT fused images respectively showed retropharyngeal CT-isodense soft tissue with tracer uptake (arrows) suggestive of an ectopic undescended PTA

Click here to view
Figure 4: (a-c) Axial, sagittal, and coronal reformations of CT neck angiogram showed intensely enhancing 0.5 × 1.3 × 3.1 cm retropharyngeal PTA (yellow arrows), superior to left thyroid lobe (*), previously had been dismissed as a reactive lymph node. Retrospective review revealed a prominent vessel coursing toward the lower pole of the PTA (red arrow) described as “polar vessel sign” in literature

Click here to view
Figure 5: (a-c) Axial T2, sagittal short-TI Inversion Recovery (STIR), sagittal postcontrast MRI of the neck show the retropharyngeal PTA (arrows) as T2 hyperintense, enhancing tissue

Click here to view

 :: Discussion Top

The retropharyngeal space is an important ectopic but uncommon location of PTA, even more so in patients considered for re-operation. In their series of sporadic PHPT, Gallagher et al. reported initial surgical failure of 17% for retropharyngeal glands compared to 3.1% for eutopic glands.[6] They found retropharyngeal glands to be four times more common at reoperation. These data highlight that the retropharyngeal space is a relative “blind spot” for PTA location.

While preference for imaging modality will vary with institution, Tc-99m-sestamibi SPECT/CT is a first-line preoperative imaging technique for PTA localization with a sensitivity of 90% and accuracy of 97.2%.[7],[8] Although specificity of Tc-99m-sestamibi SPECT/CT is not widely quoted, false positives can occur due to uptake in thyroid nodules and lymph nodes which could be reactive, granulomatous, or metastatic in nature.[9],[10],[11],[12],[13] Reactive retropharyngeal lymph nodes are common in children below 5 years but isolated enlargement is unusual in adults and should raise suspicion for pathology. This pitfall is clearly demonstrated in our case. Also, a reactive cervical lymph node may demonstrate tracer retention on sestamibi scintigraphy as reported by Leslie et al.[12] Though such instances are very rare and constitute occasional case reports, they should be considered as important caveats for interpretation.[14] Multiphase contrast-enhanced 4D-CT or CTA can serve as a useful problem-solving tool as demonstrated in our case. On 4D-CT, PTA is typically hypodense on noncontrast images and intensely enhancing on arterial phase with rapid washout in venous or delayed phase.[2],[9] Identification of “polar vessel sign” is useful to differentiate PTA from a reactive lymph node which also shows a fatty hilum on most occasions.[5] Though retrospectively identified in our case, the sign was helpful in confirming the scintigraphic diagnosis. The “polar vessel sign” is represented by an enlarged arterial branch or an early draining vein from the poles of the PTA and has been reported in two-thirds of solitary PTA, particularly with larger sized PTA.[5] The limitation of US in identifying retropharyngeal PTA is attributed to lack of acoustic window. The negative result on Tc-99m-sestamibi planar imaging is likely due to deeper location of the ectopic PTA, and the lower sensitivity of planar imaging has been documented. Also, given the fact that a significant percentage of PHPT is asymptomatic, a careful review of a patient's laboratory results and knowledge of the imaging appearance of PTA on 4D-CT and MRI can help identify asymptomatic PTA's whether the more common eutopic, or the uncommon ectopic retropharyngeal, as in our case.

 :: Conclusion Top

Our case is one of the few surgically confirmed and cured patients in the literature of retropharyngeal PTA, an important ectopic location associated with relatively high initial surgical failure. Our case illustrates the utility of Tc-99m-Sestamibi SPECT/CT for accurately localizing ectopic retropharyngeal PTA, leading to cure by successful MIP. Our case also demonstrated the advantages and disadvantages of the various imaging modalities employed preoperatively, and the critical importance of image review with appropriate clinical information so that findings are not overlooked or misinterpreted.

Declaration of patient consent

The authors certify that appropriate patient consent was obtained.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

 :: References Top

Bilezikian JP, Potts JT Jr, Fuleihan Gel-H, Kleerekoper M, Neer R, Peacock M, et al. Summary statement from a workshop on asymptomatic primary hyperparathyroidism: A perspective for the 21st century. J Bone Miner Res 2002;17(Suppl 2):N2-11.  Back to cited text no. 1
Bunch PM, Kelly HR. Preoperative imaging techniques in primary hyperparathyroidism: A Review. JAMA Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg 2018;144:929-37.  Back to cited text no. 2
Gopinath P, Mihai R. Hyperparathyroidism. Surgery 2011;29:451-8.  Back to cited text no. 3
Noussios G, Anagnostis P, Goulis DG, Lappas D, Natsis K. Ectopic thyroid tissue: Anatomical, clinical, and surgical implications of a rare entity. Eur J Endocrinol 2011;165:375-82.  Back to cited text no. 4
Bahl M, Muzaffar M, Vij G, Sosa JA, Choudhury KR, Hoang JK. Prevalence of the polar vessel sign in parathyroid adenomas on the arterial phase of 4D CT. AJNR Am J Neuroradiol 2014;35:578-81.  Back to cited text no. 5
Gallagher JW, Kelley ML, Yip L, Carty SE, McCoy KL. Retropharyngeal parathyroid glands: Important differences. World J Surg 2018;42:437-43.  Back to cited text no. 6
Khan AA, Hanley DA, Rizzoli R, Bollerslev J, Young JE, Rejnmark L, et al. Primary hyperparathyroidism: Review and recommendations on evaluation, diagnosis, and management. A Canadian and international consensus. Osteoporos Int 2017;28:1-19.  Back to cited text no. 7
Wong KK, Fig LM, Gross MD, Dwamena BA. Parathyroid adenoma localization with 99mTc-sestamibi SPECT/CT: A meta-analysis. Nucl Med Commun 2015;36:363-75.  Back to cited text no. 8
Fakhran S, Branstetter BF 4th, Pryma DA. Parathyroid imaging. Neuroimaging Clin N Am 2008;18:537-49.  Back to cited text no. 9
Calò PG, Pisano G, Tatti A, Loi G, Furcas S, Nicolosi A. Cervical lymph node sarcoidosis mimicking a parathyroid adenoma: A clinical case. Clin Med Insights Case Rep 2013;6:159-63.  Back to cited text no. 10
Perre CI, Rütter JE, Vos PA, de Hooge P. Technetium-99m-sestamibi uptake in axillary lymph node metastases in breast cancer patients. Eur J Surg Oncol 1997;23:142-4.  Back to cited text no. 11
Leslie WD, Riese KT, Mohamed C. Sestamibi retention in reactive lymph node hyperplasia: A cause of false-positive parathyroid localization. Clin Nucl Med 2000;25:216-7.  Back to cited text no. 12
Maffioli L, Steens J, Pauwels E, Bombardieri E. Applications of 99mTc-sestamibi in oncology. Tumori 1996;82:12-21.  Back to cited text no. 13
Nguyen BD. Parathyroid imaging with Tc-99m sestamibi planar and SPECT scintigraphy. Radiographics 1999;19:601-14; discussion 615-6.  Back to cited text no. 14


  [Figure 1], [Figure 2], [Figure 3], [Figure 4], [Figure 5]

This article has been cited by
1 A rare cause of persistent hyperparathyroidism
Laura Iconaru, Linda Spinato, Ruth Duttmann, Anne-Sophie Hambye, Arnaud Devriendt, Maxime Herchuelz, Celine Mathey, Rafik Karmali, Pierre Bergmann
Clinical Case Reports. 2021; 9(1): 511
[Pubmed] | [DOI]


Print this article  Email this article
Online since 12th February '04
2004 - Journal of Postgraduate Medicine
Official Publication of the Staff Society of the Seth GS Medical College and KEM Hospital, Mumbai, India
Published by Wolters Kluwer - Medknow