Problems Associated With Low Potassium

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A low level of potassium in the blood is also known as hypokalemia. This occurs when potassium levels in the blood drop below 3.5 mEq/L. Potassium is an electrolyte used by the body in the normal function of muscles and nerves. When potassium levels decrease, it causes problems with these systems. The most dangerous effect is on the heart, as it can cause a heart attack if left untreated.

  1. Symptoms

    • Symptoms may not be apparent until potassium levels become dangerously low. The most common side effects are weakness of the muscles, muscle aches and cramps. Low levels of potassium can also cause problems with the heart, including irregular heartbeat, palpitations and cardiac arrhythmia. It can also cause constipation, general fatigue and paralysis. This paralysis can include the lungs or heart, which requires immediate medical attention.

    Causes

    • Potassium depletion can be caused by malnutrition, medications--especially diuretics--or anything that causes vomiting, diarrhea or excessive sweating. Problems with the kidneys such as diabetic ketoacidosis or chronic kidney disease can also result in poor potassium regulation. This can be exacerbated if potassium intake is inadequate.

    Muscular Problems

    • Since potassium is used by the muscles in the exchange of electrical potential so that they can contract, a lack of potassium slows down this process. Potassium also provides energy to the muscles by helping transport glucose into muscle cells. Without adequate potassium the muscles respond more slowly, are weaker, tire more easily and muscle fibers can begin to break down.

    Nerve Problems

    • The nerves use potassium in the transmission of signals throughout the body. Without enough potassium, the nerves are unable to function properly potentially causing problems with all bodily functions. In particular, it can cause paralysis or limp paralysis, confusion, memory problems and loss of reflexes.

    Warning

    • Potassium is essential for proper functioning of all the body's systems. It is used in maintaining the balance of other electrolytes such as sodium, magnesium and calcium, and the pH balance in the body. It is important that the balance of potassium be maintained at normal levels--between 3.5 to 5 mEq/L--as death can result when the levels are too low or too high. People with kidney problems are especially at risk. If any of these symptoms are present, medical attention should be sought immediately.

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