Electrolytes are electrically charged molecules that are integral to many of the body’s processes. Electrolytes are particularly important to the heart, both in the transmission of the signal that maintains heart rate, as well as in the contraction of the cardiac muscle. Certain electrolyte abnormalities can produce irregular heart rhythms, which can cause symptoms of heart disease, including heart or chest pain. The most important electrolytes for heart function are potassium, calcium, magnesium and sodium.
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Potassium and the Heart
Potassium is one of the integral electrolytes involved in maintaining appropriate cardiac function. Abnormalities in the level of potassium in the bloodstream can lead to arrhythmias, or abnormal heart rhythms, which can produce heart pain. Small alterations of the potassium concentration can have significant health effects. High potassium can cause tachyarrhythmias, or abnormally fast and irregular heart rhythms, which can cause chest pain, shortness of breath and weakness. As the level of potassium increases, so does the risk of a fatal arrhythmia. Low potassium can also cause arrhythmias and can lead to ventricular fibrillation, a potentially fatal heart rhythm.
Calcium and the Heart
Calcium is important for the actual contractions of the heart muscle. Hypercalcemia, or high calcium levels, can affect the heart’s rhythm, leading to arrhythmias. As the calcium level goes up, it increases the risk of a heart attack, which can cause acute severe and crushing chest pain. Hypocalcemia, or low calcium levels, can also lead to arrhythmias, as well as low blood pressure, or hypotension, and heart failure, which can cause shortness of breath and chest pain.
Magnesium and the Heart
Magnesium is also an important electrolyte for the maintenance of a regular heart rhythm. Doctors sometimes use magnesium to stabilize the hearts of patients suffering from arrhythmias, especially a particularly dangerous arrhythmia called torsades. Low magnesium can lead to arrhythmias, and can also lead to low potassium and calcium, which can further predispose a patient to arrhythmias, chest pain and shortness of breath.
Sodium and the heart
Sodium is an important electrolyte in the body’s fluid balance. As such, abnormalities in sodium levels usually present in other ways not related to heart pain. But sodium is an important electrolyte in the generation of the electrical signal that triggers the normal heart rhythm, so abnormal sodium levels can lead to arrhythmias. Sodium can also affect blood pressure. Abnormalities in the sodium concentration can increase the amount of fluid in the body, which can lead to heart failure and chest pain.