Normal potassium levels in the blood must be maintained to prevent dysfunction of nerves and muscles. Potassium balance is maintained by intake of potassium in diet and regulation of potassium excretion. According to Irwin and Rippe's "Intensive Care Medicine," 80 percent of pancreatitis cases are associated with nausea and vomiting, which can result in hypokalemia, or low potassium levels.
What Exactly is Pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis is the inflammation, or irritation, of the pancreas; it can develop acutely or chronically over an extended period of time. The pancreas produces hormones that help in glucose metabolism and enzymes that aid in digestion; pancreatitis can interfere with the function of the pancreas, thereby interfering with pancreas-related processes. In pancreatitis, no observed correlation exists between the duration of onset and changes in pancreatic tissue; also severity of symptoms do not necessarily correlate with the acuteness of pancreatitis.
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Symptoms of Pancreatitis
Almost all cases of pancreatitis are associated with pain; according to Irwin and Rippe's "Intensive Care Medicine," pancreatic pain is characteristically described as a knife-like sensation felt in the upper portion of the abdomen and is referred to the mid-back. Nausea and vomiting, which can lead to hypokalemia, are also frequently seen in pancreatitis. Other commonly observed symptoms include abdominal distension, tensing of abdominal wall and jaundice. Bloody stool and vomiting of blood also occur in pancreatits, but are rare.
Symptoms of Hypokalemia
Blood potassium is considered low, when levels drop below 3.5 milliequivalents per liter, or mEq/L, of blood. Mild hypokalemia is infrequently associated with symptoms, but moderate to severe hypokalemia are always associated with symptoms. Symptoms of hypokalemia include muscle pain or aches, muscle weakness and constipation. Severe hypokalemia is associated with muscle paralysis and reduced or absent reflexes. Imbalance of potassium can also interfere with electrical activity in the heart, which can manifest in the electrocardiogram, a tool used for observing heart function and detecting heart conditions.
Treatment of Pancreatitis and Hypokalemia
When treating pancreatitis, the most discomforting symptoms and most life-threatening complications are addressed first. Pain is often among problems initially addressed in pancreatitis; according to "Davidson's Principles & Practice of Medicine," meperidine -- an opioid painkiller -- can be used in treating pain associated with pancreatitis. Hypovolemia, or low blood volume, and accumulation of fluid in the lungs are pancreatic-related complications that must be addressed promptly. When hypokalemia develops, ingestion of oral tablets of potassium chloride, or KCl, is sufficient in restoring normal blood potassium levels. Severe cases of hyperkalemia may involve injecting potassium intravenously. Additional treatments and care given to pancreatic patients, include antibiotics, placement of nasogastric tube for feeding, heparin and removal of gallstones if present.