Hypokalemia or low potassium in the blood refers to levels lower than 3.5 mmol/l. The normal levels of potassium range from 3.5 to 5.0 mmol/l. Mild hypokalemia does not usually cause symptoms. There are many causes of hypokalemia such as diarrhea, diabetes insipidus, dialysis, hypomagnesemia, hyperaldosteronism, side effect of medications like furosemide or steroids, and more. Hypokalemia is thought to be severe if serum potassium levels become lower than 2.5 mmol/l. It can be diagnosed using a blood test and electrocardiogram. The treatment of hypokalemia involves the replacement of potassium.
However, potassium replacement should be done with care depending on the changes seen on the electrocardiogram. Mild hypokalemia can be managed via dietary changes. Oral or intravenous potassium supplements can be provided. While intravenous potassium can be given at 20 mmol per hour, high concentrations of more than 40 mmol/l should be administered through a central line. Magnesium replacement may also be needed during potassium replacement. Hypokalemia is one of the commonest water-electrolyte imbalances and can affect as many as 20 percent of admitted patients in the hospital.
Hypokalemia Symptom #1: Muscle Cramps
A muscle cramp occurs when there is a sudden and involuntary muscle contraction that is usually non-damaging and transient. Muscle cramps can also cause immobility and pain of the affected muscle. It usually has a sudden onset and will resolve on its own.
Cramps can affect both skeletal or smooth muscles. In skeletal muscle cramps, causes include hyponatremia, muscle fatigue, hypokalemia, or hypomagnesemia. Causes of smooth muscle cramps include gastroenteritis, menstruation, and more.