Hyperkalemia is a medical condition in which the concentration of the potassium in the blood is elevated. The name hyperkalemia is derived from the combination of three words: hyper - meaning high, kalium – meaning potassium, and emia – meaning “in the blood”. Potassium is a nutrient that is vital to the function of the nerves and muscles cells, and therefore, essential for proper functioning of the heart. Potassium is an important electrolyte that influences osmotic balance between the cells and the interstitial fluid. It prevents muscle contractions and regulates the heart rhythm. Deficiency symptoms include muscle weakness, paralytic ileus, decreased reflex response, ECG abnormalities, alkalosis and cardiac arrhythmia.
Normal potassium levels
Serum potassium levels in a range between 3.5 and 5.0 mEq/L, are considered normal. Having a blood potassium level higher than 6.0 mEq/L can be hazardous and demands instant treatment. Extreme hyperkalemia is dangerous due to the risk of potentially fatal abnormal heart rhythms.
Signs and symptoms of hyperkalemia
The symptoms associated with high levels of potassium in the blood are usually nonspecific, and can equally relate to many other health problems. The most common symptoms include malaise, palpitations and general muscle weakness. In some of the patients, mild hyperventilation is also detected, but it usually results from metabolic acidosis. Metabolic acidosis is a condition in which the body produces too much acid or when the kidneys are not eliminating enough acid from the body. Some experts believe this might be the cause behind hyperkalemia.
Causes of hyperkalemia
Hyperkalemia is usually related to various kidney problems. The excess potassium is normally excreted by the kidneys, so that any kind of decrease in the function of the kidneys normally results in hyperkalemia. Various conditions may affect the function of the kidneys, but the most common disturbances result from: the acute and chronic renal failure, glomerulonephritis, lupus nephritis, transplant rejection, and various obstructive diseases of the urinary tract.
Treatment of hyperkalemia
The exact treatment of hyperkalemia depends on the underlying cause, the severity of symptoms, and upon the overall health status of the patient. In mild cases, the treatment will not require hospitalization. Emergency treatment is required if the ECG readings are abnormal or if the patient has other health problems such as acidosis and worsening kidney function. Treatment usually involves a diet low in potassium and avoiding the medications that increase blood levels of potassium. In some cases patients will need to have intravenous administration of glucose and insulin, or intravenous calcium, to protect the heart and muscles and promote movement of potassium through the body. Dialysis is the last option for treatment, used only if other measures have failed or if renal failure is present.