Low Potassium (Hypokalemia) Overview
Low potassium levels (hypokalemia), can cause weakness as cellular processes are impaired.
Potassium is a mineral (electrolyte) in the body. Almost 98% of potassium is found inside the cells. Small changes in the level of potassium that is present outside the cells can have severe effects on the heart, nerves, and muscles.
Potassium is important to maintain several bodily functions:
- Muscles need potassium to contract.
- The heart muscle needs potassium to beat properly and regulate blood pressure.
The kidney is the main organ that controls the balance of potassium by removing excess potassium into the urine.
When potassium levels are low (hypokalemia), you can become weak as cellular processes are impaired.
- The normal potassium level is 3.5-5.0 mEq/L (mEq/L stand for milliequivalents per liter of blood and this is a measure used to evaluate the level). Low potassium is defined as a potassium level below 3.5 mEq/L.
- Almost one out of five people hospitalized in the United States has a low potassium level.
- People with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia, patients with AIDS, alcoholics, and those who have had bariatric surgery have a higher incidence of hypokalemia than others.
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