Low potassium symptoms

A complete list of all possible symptoms of low potassium

This list of low potassium symptoms includes all possible symptoms. I have personally encountered all of the symptoms on this list while treating patients with low potassium. However, it is important to note that the symptoms differ significantly based on the severity of low potassium. A single patient will not have all of the symptoms in this list. It is important that you read the whole article if you want to properly understand what low potassium does to you. I have explained what low potassium does to you by exploring each organ system it affects. This complete list of low potassium symptoms is only a summary of what I have explained in this detailed article.

Here is the list:

  1. Muscle weakness
  2. Difficulty walking
  3. Muscle cramps all over body
  4. Muscle pain all over body
  5. Muscle soreness after workout
  6. Complete paralysis
  7. Heart palpitations
  8. Skipped heart beats
  9. Fast heart rate
  10. Weak heart muscle
  11. Sudden cardiac arrest
  12. Labored breathing due to respiratory muscle weakness
  13. Inability to breathe
  14. Death from respiratory failure
  15. Feeling irritable
  16. Feeling confused
  17. Hallucinations
  18. Delusions
  19. constipation symptoms
  20. Nausea and vomiting
  21. Loss of appetite
  22. Stomach bloating after eating

Low potassium symptoms and potassium levels

To understand low potassium symptoms, you need to know what normal potassium level is and how it is measured. Potassium level is usually measured as a part of a panel of labs called Basic Metabolic Panel or BMP. BMP also measures other electrolytes and nitrogenous substances along with potassium. It is commonly performed as a routine test in most people who are sick enough to be admitted to hospital. Potassium level in blood is commonly measured as milliEquivalents per liter (mEq/l). Most labs list the normal range of blood potassium level as 3.5mEq/l to 5meq/l.

It is important to know your actual numbers because low potassium symptoms are usually proportional to how low your blood potassium levels are. Low potassium symptoms are relatively mild when your potassium level is in between 3 and 3.5 mEq/l. You may not have any specific symptom at this level. The symptoms can be more prominent when your potassium level gets to 2.5 -3 mEq/l range. Potassium levels of less than 2.5 mEq/l is considered medical emergency and severe life threatening symptoms may appear at this level.

potassium levels in and out your organ cells

Physiology of low potassium symptoms(what low potassium does to you)

To understand the mechanism of how low potassium symptoms develop in your body, you need to know the basic role of potassium. Potassium is an electrolyte. Along with sodium, Potassium controls how your nerves and muscles react to electric signal. Most of your potassium is contained inside your body cells while most of the sodium lives outside your body cells.

Your body cells have special pumps that keep your sodium and potassium where they are supposed to be. The ratio of potassium inside and outside your cells is very important because this ratio controls how responsive your muscle and nerve cells are. When you have low potassium in your blood, this ratio gets disrupted and your muscle and nerves become less responsive to stimulus. As the potassium level goes further down, your cells may get completely unresponsive and become paralyzed.

Low potassium symptoms in your muscles

Your muscle cells are very vulnerable to low potassium levels. Your muscles move when they get signal from your nerves to move. This movement happens when your muscle cells respond to the signal. Low blood potassium makes your muscle cells less responsive. As a result, your muscles get weak. As your low potassium symptoms worsen, you have difficulty walking. Symptoms of muscle weakness from low potassium start in your legs and work their way up. As your potassium levels go down, your muscle weakness spreads to your core muscles and then to your arms. Eventually, you have hard time moving any muscle in your body and you get completely paralyzed.

Muscle cramping is another symptom of low potassium. When you exercise, your muscles need more oxygen. Your body supplies more oxygen to your muscles by increasing blood supply to the muscle. Potassium released from your muscles help increase local blood supply by dilating blood vessels in the area. When your body is low in potassium, your muscles may not be able to release the extra potassium. When this happens, your exercising muscles may not get enough oxygen to meet the demand and you experience muscle cramps all over body.

Low potassium symptoms in women may be sometimes confused with menstrual cramps. Low potassium symptoms in women may also be missed during pregnancy. Pregnant women may also develop potassium deficiency because of nausea and vomiting associated with morning sickness.

Low potassium symptoms in your heart

Low potassium symptoms in your heart result from the change in responsiveness of your heart muscles. Like your other muscles, heart muscles depend on the correct ratio of potassium in and out of the cells. When blood potassium goes down, it disrupts this ratio and heart muscles do not respond properly to stimulus. It leads to weak heart muscle symptoms.

When potassium deficiency affects your heart muscles, you can see significant distinctive changes in the electrical tracing(EKG) of your heart. It is one of the warning signs of low potassium. You doctors can detect this change. At this stage, your low potassium must be corrected as soon as possible to avoid serious heart problems. If your potassium continues to go down after the EKG changes, it will affect your heart rhythm. Initially, you may have some skipped beats or low heart rate. As things worsen, your heart rhythm gets funkier. It may cause rapid unstable heartbeat. Low potassium symptoms in your heart may eventually lead to sudden cardiac arrest with dangerous arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms). When your potassium is critically low, your weak heart muscles may be too weak to pump any blood. Your circulation may collapse and you may die from low potassium symptoms in your heart.

Low potassium symptoms in your lungs

Severe potassium deficiency symptoms can affect your breathing. When you breathe, you are basically using muscles in your chest to help expand and contract your lungs. This muscle movement is essential to keep you breathing. When your potassium level is so low that your muscles are not contracting very well, it compromises your breathing capacity. Weakness of the muscles that help you breathe will result in labored breathing. If your low potassium symptoms continue to worsen, you may develop respiratory failure from inadequate gas exchange. It may eventually lead to respiratory arrest and death.

Low potassium symptoms in your brain

Potassium deficiency affects the responsiveness of your nerve cells in the same way it affects your muscle cells. Your muscles have trouble contracting with low potassium while your nerves have trouble rapidly conducting and relaying the signal. Your nervous system as a whole slows down with low potassium. Symptoms arising from your brain include irritability and confusion. You may not know what is going on around you. You may see or hear things that are not there. You may have hard time making sense of your environment.

Low potassium symptoms in your digestive tract

Your digestive tract starts from your mouth and continues to your food pipe, stomach, small intestine, large intestine and finally opens up in your rectum. Food in your stomach has to be churned and mixed. It has to be sent down your intestine. You have various muscles in your gut that help in pushing your food down the pipe. Potassium deficiency affect these muscles in your gut. When your potassium is too low, your gut muscles have trouble moving. As a result food gets stuck in your intestines.

When you have mild potassium deficiency, you may only feel like you have constipation. However, severe low potassium symptoms in your gut may manifest as bowel obstruction. Other digestive symptoms of low potassium may include distension, nausea, vomiting, bloating and loss of appetite. Severe potassium deficiency may even lead to complete paralysis of your gut.

Causes of potassium deficiency

Decreased intake of potassium, increased loss of potassium or shift of potassium from your blood to your organ cells may cause low potassium. Now, we will look at each individual cause of low potassium.

Low potassium symptoms due to loss of potassium from your digestive tract

This is one of the most common causes of low potassium. You lose some potassium directly when you have persistent vomiting or persistent diarrhea. However, the direct loss of potassium in your vomit or your diarrhea only account for a part of how you develop low potassium symptoms from vomiting or diarrhea. When you lose body fluid from vomiting or diarrhea, you get dehydrated. When you get dehydrated, your body tries to conserve water. Sodium is the main electrolyte in your blood that helps retain water in your blood. When you body needs to conserve water, your kidneys conserve sodium. The mechanism by which your kidneys conserve sodium is linked to how they excrete potassium. When your kidneys try to preserve more sodium, they end up losing more potassium. Dehydration leading to sodium conservation and potassium excretion by your kidneys accounts for the bulk of your low potassium symptoms in those situations.

Low potassium symptoms due to loss of potassium from your kidneys

Your kidneys play a very important role in regulating the amount of sodium and potassium in your body. The mechanism by which your kidneys regulate your potassium is complex and is influenced by several hormones and feedback mechanisms. Increased levels of certain hormone called aldosterone can directly cause low potassium symptoms by increasing the loss of potassium in your urine.

Different medications interfere with salt and water handling of your body to achieve different goals. Certain medications called diuretics (commonly known as water pills) promote removal of more water and salt from your body. These medications may be needed to lower your blood pressure or treat swelling or fluid retention. These medications may also cause excessive loss of potassium in your urine. If you are taking these types of water pills, you need to check your potassium level frequently and increase your potassium intake to avoid getting symptoms of low potassium. Your doctor may also prescribe some potassium supplements if you are on a high dose of water pills.

A small change in the level of acidity of your blood can greatly influence how your kidneys handle potassium. Disorders resulting in acid-base imbalance can cause low potassium symptoms by increasing loss of potassium from your kidneys. Change in blood acidity also affects movement of potassium in and out of body cells. The shift of potassium from your blood to your organ cells may also cause low potassium symptoms.

Low potassium symptoms due to decreased potassium in your diet

Not eating enough potassium is an obvious cause of nutritional potassium deficiency. However, severe low potassium symptoms do not usually develop from dietary habit alone. Your kidneys have the ability to compensate for varying amounts of potassium intake. If your diet contains foods high in potassium and your body is getting too much potassium, your kidneys excrete the extra potassium in your urine. If your diet does not contain foods high in potassium and your body is getting less potassium, your kidneys conserve potassium by decreasing the concentration of potassium in your urine.

In absence of dehydration, it takes significant change in dietary habit to get low potassium symptoms from diet alone. It usually happens in people with extreme nutritional problems. Alcoholics and anorectics are the most common examples of people that get low potassium symptoms from diet alone. It may also happen in people with cancer when they get nutritionally deficient because of poor appetite and side effects of chemotherapy.



For normal healthy people to get low potassium symptoms from decreased intake, they need to have another factor contributing to it. Dehydration and use of water pills are the most common associated factors that magnify the effects of less than adequate potassium intake and result in low potassium symptoms. That is why many patients who are on water pills routinely take potassium supplements.

How much potassium is needed daily?

There has been some new changes in nutritional guidelines about daily potassium requirements for adults. World health organization has recently published guidelines advocating at least 3.51 grams of dietary potassium everyday for adults. How much potassium is needed daily to prevent potassium deficiency symptoms is not the same as how much potassium intake is recommended by WHO.

Recommendation on daily potassium requirements for adults are made to achieve beneficial effects of higher potassium intake. It is not the amount of potassium needed to avoid low potassium symptoms.

Recent studies have suggested that increased daily intake of potassium may have certain health benefits. Some people advocate increasing daily potassium intake as one of the natural ways to lower blood pressure. Higher potassium intake has also been associated with a reduced risk of stroke. Foods high in potassium seem to be beneficial for people with high blood pressure and heart disease.

Risks of taking potassium supplement without talking with your doctor

Based on our discussion, you may think about taking potassium supplements to improve your health. People looking for a quick answer to the question “how to lower blood pressure” may look at potassium supplement for the answer to their problem.

I am warning you not to do that. Please do not take potassium supplements without talking with your doctor first. Before taking potassium supplements, you need to get your potassium level checked. You may also need to have your kidney function evaluated by your doctor. If your kidneys have trouble getting rid of the extra potassium in your blood, you blood potassium may rise to a dangerous level. Symptoms of high potassium can be dangerous. High potassium levels in you blood can cause life threatening medical emergencies.

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