What is Hypokalemia?

Hypokalemia is a condition in which the body has an abnormally low levels of potassium. Potassium is an essential mineral and electrolyte that plays a critical role in the body's functioning. It assists in the transmission of electrical impulses in the heart, helps regulate fluid balance and acid-base balance, and assists in muscle contractions. When hypokalemia occurs, there is a decreased ability for the body to function optimally and it increases the risk of cardiac arrhythmias, which can be fatal.

Causes of Hypokalemia

Hypokalemia can be caused by a number of factors including:

  • A low dietary intake of potassium
  • Diuretics, laxatives or steroids that increase the urine output of potassium
  • Excessive vomiting or diarrhea
  • Alcoholism
  • Renal tubular acidosis
  • Excessive sweating or strenuous exercise
  • Endocrine disorders such as Cushing’s Syndrome or Addison’s Disease
  • Severe malnutrition

Symptoms of Hypokalemia

The symptoms associated with hypokalemia can range from mild to severe. The most common symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Muscle weakness or cramps
  • Constipation
  • Irregular heart beat
  • Abnormal heart rhythm
  • Impaired nerve functioning
  • Paresthesias (tingling or prickling sensation in the skin)
  • Paralysis (rare)

Diagnosis of Hypokalemia

A diagnosis of hypokalemia is made based on a physical exam as well as laboratory tests. The medical practitioner will measure the serum potassium levels and check for electrolyte imbalance. Other tests that may be ordered include a urine potassium test, an acid-base balance test, and tests to measure kidney and endocrine function.

Treatment of Hypokalemia

Treatment for hypokalemia includes the replacement of potassium in the body. This may be done through oral supplementation, intravenous infusion, or a combination of both. Treatment also involves managing the underlying cause of the potassium deficiency. This may include dietary changes, medications, or lifestyle adjustments.