Your body needs a wide variety of chemicals in order to function properly. One of these chemicals is potassium. Potassium is used for many functions in the body. It is a key element in the proper functioning of your heart. Nerve impulses are regulated and controlled with potassium. Skeletal muscle contractions rely on the right amount of potassium in order to do things as simple as lifting your arm. In addition, potassium is needed for regulation of water in your body. Too little potassium, a condition known as hypokalemia, can cause many problems with the functioning of your muscles, nerves, water balance, and heart.
What causes low levels of potassium?
One of the more common causes of hypokalemia is prolonged vomiting or diarrhea. This is particularly common in small children and the elderly, both of whom are at increased risk for chemical imbalances. Sweating from exercise, particularly in harsh environments, can be a cause of low potassium levels.
People with chronic kidney failure can present with low potassium levels. This happens at certain stages of kidney failure. In other stages of kidney disease, the body will end up with too much potassium, which can also be quite harmful.
Some medications will cause a person to loose too much potassium. This is common with some types of diuretics. These are medications used to lower the total amount of fluid in the body. Diuretics are used for many illnesses, such as heart failure or high blood pressure. Some laxatives have been known to cause hypokalemia.
What are the symptoms?
There are very definite symptoms associated with hypokalemia. When you have low levels of potassium, you will begin to feel fatigued and weak. This is not surprising as potassium is used to help your muscles contract. Lack of potassium will certainly make it hard to move your muscles.
Low potassium will also lower your blood pressure. While this may sometimes be seen as a good thing, it’s not as the lowered blood pressure is not being caused by an imbalance in your system.
Constipation and muscle cramps are commonly seen in people with low potassium levels. In very severe cases, it is possible for the heart to stop beating in a normal rhythm. These arrhythmias can be very severe and potentially life threatening.
OK, so what can be done about it?
Fortunately, low levels of potassium are relatively easy to diagnose. Simple and inexpensive blood tests can tell a doctor very quickly is a person’s problems are related to low potassium levels. ECG tracings of the electrical activity of your heart will help often show distinctive patterns in severe cases.
If this is a problem, fluids fortified with extra potassium can be given to the patient. This can be done by drinking in mild cases, or by intravenous lines in more severe cases. Care must be taken to raise potassium levels slowly so as to not overshoot the normal range and cause the opposite problem – hyperkalemia. Also possible in mild cases is simply easting foods that are high in potassium, such as bananas, melons, carrots, or tomato juice.