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What Are the Symptoms of Hypokalemia?

Article Details
  • Written By: T. Broderick
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 07 August 2018
  • Copyright Protected:
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    Conjecture Corporation
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There are many symptoms of hypokalemia. Hypokalemia is a medical condition characterized by low potassium levels in the blood. As with vitamin and mineral deficiencies, symptoms worsen as one loses more potassium. A blood test is able to diagnose hypokalemia. The ability to cure hypokalemia depends on the underlying cause.

Potassium plays a vital role within the human body. Found mainly within cells, the sodium-potassium pumps located along the cell walls maintain proper cell volume. Without potassium, the body as a whole cannot function properly. As potassium levels decrease, symptoms begin to appear.

The first symptoms of hypokalemia are unnoticeable by the patient. The most common symptom at this early stage is rising blood pressure; the body loses its ability to maintain proper blood volume. Another one of the mild symptoms of hypokalemia is irregular heartbeat. Though more serious, a patient may still not notice any change in his or her quality of life.

As hypokalemia worsens, so do the symptoms. At this point, the potassium imbalance affects the muscles' ability to contract. One begins to feel muscular pain and muscular fatigue. General weakness is another symptom that develops due to moderate hypokalemia.

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Severe hypokalemia produces severe, life-threatening symptoms. Full body paralysis, breakdown of skeletal muscles and respiratory failure develop quickly without medical intervention. Patient death is certain without treatment. If one lives in a developed country, the symptoms of hypokalemia rarely progress to this point; medical testing can quickly diagnose hypokalemia and the underlying condition that caused it.

A blood test revels one's potassium levels. Depending on one's symptoms of hypokalemia, a physician may run a battery of tests to determine if the condition has caused any permanent damage to other parts of the body. An electrocardiogram is necessary if a physician discovers an irregular heartbeat. A patient may undergo other tests if his or her urine is brown; this indicates the muscle breakdown described. During the diagnostic process, the most important test is the one that discovers the underlying cause of a patient's hypokalemia.

Treating the symptoms of hypokalemia requires treating the underlying cause affecting the patient. In most cases, the cause is a simple dietary potassium deficiency, correctable through supplement use and/or dietary changes. For some patients, though, correcting hypokalemia is not as easy. Hypokalemia is an early symptom of type 1 diabetes; as the body flushes out excess glucose through urine, potassium is eliminated as well. A patient with type 1 diabetes faces the prospect of hypokalemia for the rest of his or her life.

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