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Effects of an Electrolyte Imbalance

author image Jesse Sulzer, MD, Ph.D.
Jesse Sulzer, MD, PhD is a professional writer whose work has appeared on various websites. Sulzer is a general surgery resident at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center. Additionally, he earned a Ph.D. in physiology and has more than 10 years of biomedical research experience.
Effects of an Electrolyte Imbalance
Changes in electrolyte levels can have significant effects.

Levels of electrolytes including sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, chloride, phosphate, and carbonate can become too high or too low. Changes in electrolyte levels may be due to alterations in the amount present in your body or in the volume of water in your body. Imbalances in sodium, potassium and calcium most commonly produce problems.

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Most of the sodium in your body is located in the blood where it helps maintain fluid balance. Nerve and muscle function also rely on sodium. Low levels of sodium, resulting from decreased sodium intake or excess body water, affect the nervous system and brain producing symptoms including lethargy and confusion. Rapid falls or extremely low levels of sodium can cause muscle twitches, seizures, coma and even death. High sodium, which commonly results from dehydration or a decrease in body water, produces symptoms similar to low levels including confusion, muscle twitches, seizures and death.


Excretion by the kidneys maintains tight control of potassium levels in your blood. Low potassium, which can be caused by vomiting, diarrhea and diuretic use, can produce weakness, muscle twitches and abnormal heart rhythms. However, low potassium rarely causes significant problems. In contrast, high potassium can produce much more significant effects. High potassium commonly occurs due to kidney failure and can cause serious and life threatening cardiac arrhythmias.


Calcium plays a vital role in your bone growth and turnover and in normal cardiac function. Calcium can be released from or deposited in bone to tightly regulate the amount in your blood. Low calcium levels cause weakness, tingling in the feet and hands and confusion. High calcium levels can be the result of endocrine disorders and various cancers. While small increases in calcium levels can be well tolerated, very high levels can cause dehydration due to increased water filtration by the kidney. Additional effects include nausea, constipation, abdominal pain and constipation.

Other Electrolytes

Levels of additional electrolytes, such as magnesium and phosphate, can be elevated or decreased by disease, impaired or excess intake, or changes in the amount of water in your body as can occur in kidney failure. Effects of moderate electrolyte imbalances vary, but common effects of extreme imbalances in most electrolytes include neurological changes and cardiac arrhythmias.

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