Among the many blood factors a cardiologist monitors in their patients is potassium. Either a low or high level of potassium is dangerous for the heart. But what is potassium, and why is it so important? Potassium is the third-most common mineral in the body. It helps regulate the body’s fluid balance, the contraction of its muscles, and the transmission of nerve signals.
About 98% of the potassium in our body is found inside our cells. Muscle cells contain 80% of this potassium, and the other 20% is in bone, liver and red blood cells. In addition to helping other muscles move, nerves to work, and the kidneys to filter blood, potassium triggers the heart to beat. The body needs a proper balance of potassium to help muscles — particularly heart muscles — work properly. Blood potassium levels should be between about 3.5 and 5 millimoles per liter (mmol/L). When levels are persistently higher, the resulting condition is called hyperkalemia.
Mild hyperkalemia typically causes no symptoms, but very high potassium levels can cause muscle weakness or dangerous heart rhythm. In hypokalemia, the level of potassium in blood is too low. Hypokalemia is not an illness in itself, but is usually a symptom of an underlying illness or a side effect of a medication. A low potassium level usually results from vomiting, diarrhea, adrenal gland disorders, or use of diuretics. Low potassium can make muscles feel weak, cramp, twitch, or even become paralyzed, and can also cause abnormal heart rhythms.
Although a slightly low potassium level may not be dangerous, any low potassium level requires medical attention. Potassium levels can be low without being so low that the heart stops contracting. Sometimes the low levels cause the heart to pump blood ineffectively in a condition known as heart failure. Blood clots that form or flow and get stuck in the coronary arteries could block the blood supply and cause a heart attack.
If potassium levels drop below 2.5 mmol per liter, however, hypokalemia can be life-threatening. When people have mild hypokalemia, they will usually experience no symptoms. If their hypokalemia is moderate or severe, they will often feel unwell and may experience other symptoms. This is especially true if the individual is elderly, or has heart or kidney problems.
The National Organization for Rare Disorders lists the following symptoms for hypokalemia:
1. Muscle weakness, sometimes severe enough to cause paralysis
2. Respiratory failure
3. Low blood pressure
4. Muscle cramping or twitching
5. Extreme thirst
6. Frequent need to urinate
7. Loss of appetite
9. Heart problems, in particular arrhythmia
Nevertheless, people should be aware that it is uncommon to experience any of these symptoms even if their hypokalemia is severe. A study published in the European Journal of Emergency Medicine analyzed data from nearly 5000 individuals who were taken to the emergency room of a nearby hospital and diagnosed with hypokalemia, and discovered that only 0.5 percent of these individuals had any of the symptoms listed above. Further, only 1% of these individuals had severe hypokalemia, demonstrating that low potassium levels can cause an individual to feel unwell, even when their hypokalemia is not technically termed severe.
According to a 2018 study, the main causes for potassium loss are:
1. Persistent diarrhea
2. Prolonged vomiting
3. Kidney disease
4. A side effect of diuretics
5. A side effect of other medications
Generally, people diagnosed with hypokalemia are treated with potassium supplements, usually in the form of tablets. If an individual's hypokalemia is life-threatening, intravenous supplementation is often required. The prognosis for an individual with hypokalemia depends on the underlying illness or side effect that caused the loss of potassium. In many cases supplementation with potassium will solve the problem. In other cases, medicines that may be causing the problem will have to be changed, or have their dosage lowered. However, if the individual is suffering from both heart and kidney disease, achieving a proper balance of potassium can be quite complicated.
The most important way to assure proper potassium levels, especially in the presence of other medical conditions, is to put yourself in the care of the best cardiologists, like those at the NJ Heart and Lung Center™ of Regency Jewish Heritage.
Regency Jewish has partnered with the area's leading cardiologists and pulmonologists to create a program that:
- Reduces hospital readmissions and patient length of stay
- Maximizes ability for patient to regain ADL skills and independence
- Offers 24/7/365 physician coverage through on-site staff and advanced telemedicine program
- Has an on-site sleep study program to unlock Medicare benefit for Bipap utilization upon discharge
- Offers STAT availability of Labs, X-Ray and other diagnostic tools
Our Outcomes & Capabilities include:
- Cardiologist and pulmonologist on site daily for immediate intervention
- Specialized rehab & nursing protocols developed in partnership with leading cardiologists & pulmonologists
- A plan proven to prevent readmission to the hospital and improve patient independence and functionality
- Regular Communication Between Patient, Family, Staff & Physicians
- Collaborative care planning with other physician & therapy specialists
- Advanced staff education & training
- Transitional care nurse & enhanced discharge-to-home process
- Follow-up home visit within 24-48 hours
- Educational material provided to patients & families
We offer the very best of care in a patient-centered environment. This means always listening to our residents and patients and respecting their capabilities, while helping them to achieve maximum functionality and independence. And always maintaining the highest professional and quality standards in our staff and our facilities. Our 25 years of excellent care have led to us being awarded a Best Nursing Homes award by US News & World Today, a 5-Star rating by USA Today, and an A+ rating by the Better Business Bureau, among many other awards.
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