Potassium is one of the electrolytes required by your body to function normally. Its main function is to carry signals across various cells like nerve cells, muscle cells of the heart, etc. It is a vital electrolyte to keep the blood pressure optimal. Even small changes in its level affect our body drastically causing Hypokalemia.
What is hypokalemia?
Hypo means low; thus, hypokalemia means low potassium levels in the body. The serum potassium levels required for the body to function properly are 3.5 to 5.0 mEq/Liter. If the levels go below 2.0mEq/litre, our body starts showing serious symptoms. Potassium levels are needed for nerves to function properly and also for cells to get nutrition. Also, its level affects heart muscles as potassium is needed for the proper transmission of electrical impulses within the heart.
Symptoms of hypokalemia
The symptoms associated with hypokalemia vary from mild to life-threatening, depending on potassium levels in your body. Some of the symptoms are-
- Twitching of muscles
- Muscle cramps
- Irregular heart rhythms
- Kidney problems
- Reduced movement
- Feeling thirsty all the time
- Frequent urination
- Respiratory failure
The process of depolarization and repolarization (discharging and recharging energy) in the neuromuscular cells is carried out only in the presence of potassium. If these levels drop below a certain point, the nerves and muscles lose their coordination. This loss in coordination can make your hands shake, with twitching of random muscles in the body.
Causes of hypokalemia
There are different reasons for the blood potassium levels to go down. A few of them are listed below-
- Diarrhea can causes you to lose potassium.
- Frequent vomiting- Vomiting can cause you to lose potassium.
- Excessive sweating- Excessive sweating caused by any reason (like hot flashes or being in an overheated environment) makes you lose potassium and feel tired.
- Alcohol- Drinking too much alcohol removes potassium through your body via urine.
- Poor diet- Dietary intake of potassium should be 70-100 mEq per day. Many people suffer from hypokalemia as they have poor food habits.
- Ketoacidosis- Sometimes, in diabetic patients, the levels of ketones rise dangerously causing loss of potassium.
- Tobacco- Tobacco consumption causes potassium deficiency.
- Laxative abuse- People who take laxatives daily face potassium loss in their bodies.
- Diuretics- In certain medical issues, doctors prescribe diuretics, which make you urinate more. In such conditions, also patients face hypokalemia.
- Folic acid deficiency- Deficiency of folic acid causes hypokalemia.
- Aldosteronism- The condition where the levels of hormone aldosterone increase, causing adrenal tumors and impairing kidney function.
- Elevated corticosteroid levels
- Low magnesium levels
- Ileostomy- Patients who have had this bowel surgery excrete more potassium than normal people.
- Villous adenoma-where your colon leaks potassium causing hypokalemia.
- An overactive thyroid causes low potassium levels.
- Electrolyte imbalance due to chronic diseases such as sepsis, kidney failure( specially patients on dialysis) etc
- Side effects- Some medications like amphotericin B, aminoglycosides and prednisolone cause potassium deficiency.
There are certain syndromes associated with hypokalemia like Cushing’s syndrome, Liddle syndrome and Gitelman’s syndrome. It has been found by research over the years that women tend to face hypokalemia more than men because of their different physiology.
When to see the Doctor
If you are feeling any of the below symptoms regularly, you should see your healthcare provider.
- Extreme weakness
- Constant fatigue
- Muscle cramps or twitches
- Arrhythmias( abnormal heart rhythm)
It is rare for hypokalemic patients to show any other symptom unless their potassium level goes down extremely low. Potassium levels are found by carrying out various blood tests, Urine tests, electrocardiograms, etc. Do not take potassium supplements on your own. Consult your doctor first.
Hypokalemia can be prevented with a proper diet. Following is the list of some foods which are rich in potassium.
- Soy milk
- Brussel sprouts
- Kiwi fruit
- Nuts(all kinds)
Potassium supplements are given. Under severe circumstances, an I.V. fluid (Potassium chloride solution mixed with IV fluid) is given. Doctors can prescribe potassium supplements or take the patient off diuretics, depending on the diagnosis and different situations.
In cases of severe hypokalemia, the heart rhythm gets disrupted dangerously. Also, patients who are prescribed diuretics or other medications that may lower potassium levels need to be alert for hypokalemia . It is important to be in touch with your healthcare provider and measure your blood potassium levels routinely in such circumstances.
Risk Factors for hypokalemia
A very rare condition where all the potassium from the body serum shifts to the body cells causing immediate muscle weakness to the point where the patient becomes paralyzed called periodic paralysis. It is usually hereditary and is caused by excessive exercise, high salt meal, or there is no particular cause. IV treatment mostly cures such paralysis within 24 hours.
Hypokalemia is rarely life-threatening and can always be brought back to normal by proper immediate treatment. If you face hypokalemia as a side effect of any medication, ask your doctor to change the medications or ask for potassium supplements. Also, routinely monitoring your potassium levels will be very helpful. If you follow the right diet, hypokalemia can be avoided.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Do you experience twitches in your body?
If you experience muscle twitches, especially when working out or doing any physical task, take blood tests to determine your potassium levels. Your healthcare provider can help you with those.
Do you experience arrhythmic episodes?
Abnormal heartbeats can be related to potassium deficiency. If you experience it, contact your doctor immediately .
Do you experience frequent urination?
If you have to urinate very often and feel thirsty all the time, contact your doctor. The doctor will prescribe you some routine tests to monitor your health.