Potassium is a mineral nutrient and an electrolyte that is very important to the body. A potassium imbalance in the body can cause heart problems that could progress to death. Most of the body's potassium is present inside the cells, and the rest is found in the environment outside the cells--in bodily fluids. The amount of potassium in the serum determines whether the body works properly or not, and it is affected by medication, hormones and medical conditions.
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Potassium helps nerves in the body work properly. Nerves allow individuals to respond to stimuli such as heat, pain and light. Muscle contraction also requires potassium. Skeletal muscles used for voluntary movements, such as picking things up, and smooth muscles that facilitate involuntary muscle functions, such as heartbeats, need potassium to function.
Too Much Potassium
Abnormally high potassium levels is called hyperkalemia. The Merck Manuals Online Medical Library explains that consuming too much potassium or the inability to excrete or utilize potassium properly can cause hyperkalemia. Kidney disease and injuries such as large burns can cause abnormally elevated potassium levels in the body. Hormonal disorders such as Addison's disease can also cause hyperkalemia, which can lead to nausea and irregular heartbeat.
Too Little Potassium
Hypokalemia is a term used to describe low blood levels of potassium. Too little potassium in the bloodstream can occur due to increased loss of potassium in the urine or the digestive tract or the body's inability to utilize potassium properly. Certain medications such as potassium-wasting diuretics facilitate loss of potassium through urine. Diseases such as Cushing's syndrome promote loss of potassium in urine. Vomiting and diarrhea can also cause low potassium levels. Muscle weakness, abdominal pain, constipation and abnormal heart rhythms are a few effects of hypokalemia.
Cardiac arrest is a condition in which the heart stops beating. If treatment is not initiated immediately, brain cells begin to die, and death can occur. The book "Professional Guide to Diseases" explains that both hypokalemia and hyperkalemia can cause abnormal heartbeat rhythm that could culminate in cardiac arrest. Muscles are needed for body processes such as respiration, digestion and movement. Muscular paralysis is another complication of too much or too little potassium in the bloodstream.
Treatment for too little potassium involves replenishing the body's potassium content with oral or intravenous potassium. People taking potassium-wasting diuretics can switch to medications that conserve potassium. In hyperkalemia treatment, the heart is protected with medications such as 10 percent calcium gluconate. Then the excess potassium in the bloodstream is removed with medication and medical procedures such as hemodialysis and peritoneal dialysis.