Hypokalemia (Low Potassium): Symptoms, Causes, And Best Treatments

Potassium is an essential electrolyte that plays a vital role in the proper functioning of the heart, muscles, and kidneys. When the level falls below this range, it can lead to a variety of health problems.

This article throws light on the symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment of low potassium in the body.

What is Hypokalemia?

Low potassium or potassium deficiency is known as hypokalemia. When the level of potassium in the blood is lower than 3 meq/L, it is known as hypokalemia. Potassium is an electrolyte from our daily diet; excess of it is removed by the kidney through urine. This mineral is important for the proper functioning of the heart, muscles, nerves, bones and digestive system etc.

Symptoms of Low Potassium Levels in the Body 

  • Muscular Symptoms – Fatigue, frequent muscle tightness or spasms, tingling & numbness are common symptoms.
  • Heart problems – Abnormal heart rhythm and blood pressure abnormalities occur as the kidney retains more sodium if potassium is low. 
  • Constipation – As the body tries to preserve the potassium from excreting, constipation occurs.
  • Fainting and lightheadedness in severe cases of hypokalemia.
  • Excessive urination and excessive thirst are seen in many patients with potassium deficiency. 
  • Frequent and Painful muscle cramps can also be a sign of potassium deficiency as potassium helps in relaying the signals from the brain to muscles to initiate and stop muscle contractions. 
  • Shortness of Breath can also occur in low potassium as it helps in the expansion and contraction of the lungs.

Causes of Hypokalemia

  • DiseasesDiarrhea & vomiting, genetic disorders, adrenal gland issues, hyperhidrosis or excessive sweating, kidney problems, anorexia nervosa, and other gastrointestinal problems lead to hypokalemia
  • Medications – Some medications like laxatives, diuretics, corticosteroids, insulin, antimicrobial medications, etc are responsible for this as well. 
  • Dietary Factors – Poor diet that is deficient in important electrolytes and minerals can also lead to hypokalemia. For example, a diet that lacks plant-based food such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, and green leafy vegetables is likely to be deficient in potassium. In some rare cases, overconsumption of licorice can cause hypokalemia as well. However dietary factors rarely cause hypokalemia but a prolonged malnourished diet and malnutrition can create potassium deficiency. 

How is Hypokalemia diagnosed and How can it be Treated?

It is diagnosed by a blood test. The normal range of potassium levels is 3.5 to 5.2 mEq/L. If the level of potassium in the blood goes below 3 mEq/L then it is a severe case of hypokalemia. 

Some urine tests and kidney function tests can also be performed to find the cause of hypokalemia and an ECG as well to check out if it’s affecting the heart rhythm or not.  

Treatment of hypokalemia is performed by potassium supplements either orally or intravenously depending upon the severity of the deficiency. In general, 60-80 mmol of supplements per day are given for days or weeks depending upon the severity of hypokalemia. It must be taken by doctor’s prescription and after having food so that it doesn’t harm the bowel lining.

Taking a balanced electrolyte drink that is rich in potassium and other minerals can help as well. Discontinuation of the laxatives and treating the underlying cause, however, is the best treatment for hypokalemia.

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What are some of the Risks associated with Low Potassium Levels in the Body?

If the potassium levels in the blood remain constantly low or they start decreasing dramatically due to an underlying problem, then it can pose some serious health risks for the patient. 

This electrolyte imbalance can create many problems such as heart arrhythmia, muscle twitches, and severe muscle weakness that can even lead to paralysis. That’s why even mild potassium deficiency must be treated promptly to avoid any complications. 

Who is most at risk for hypokalemia?

Those patients who already have a kidney disorder, are alcoholic or continuously use some potassium-chelating medicines like laxatives, diuretics and corticosteroids etc are at risk for hypokalemia. Those diabetic patients who are on insulin are prone to hypokalemia as well. 

What is a major cause of hypokalemia?

The major causes of hypokalemia are sudden water loss due to gastrointestinal issues, underlying kidney problems, some medicines like diuretics, laxatives and some genetic disorders etc.

Some rare problems like anorexia nervosa and prolonged malnutrition can lead to low potassium levels as well.

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