6 Signs of a Lack of Potassium (Hypokalemia)

A lack of potassium doesn't always cause symptoms, but in certain cases, some signs serve as red flags. We'll show you the 6 most common signs.
6 Signs of a Lack of Potassium (Hypokalemia)

Last update: 16 December, 2022

Potassium is an essential mineral that the body uses to regulate different processes. For example, it intervenes in the stabilization of the heart rate, contributes to the balance of liquids, and regulates the synthesis of proteins. Its deficiency is known as hypokalemia. Today, we’ll show you 6 signs of a lack of potassium that you can use as indicators.

A diet of foods with potassium is often thought to be sufficient to keep this mineral stable. Although this is generally the case, diarrhea, vomiting, and the use of certain medications (laxatives and diuretics) can destabilize you. Let’s see 6 symptoms of a lack of potassium that can alert you.

Symptoms of a lack of potassium

In addition to the scenarios outlined, some health conditions can cause potassium levels to drop. For example, Cushing’s syndrome, celiac disease, and kidney disease. Hypokalemia is relatively common in hospitalized patients.

The first thing you have to know is that hypokalemia doesn’t usually cause symptoms. The mineral doesn’t drop so low under normal conditions that it develops visible signs. These only manifest when their fall is very sudden. With this in mind, we’ll tell you about 6 symptoms of a lack of potassium that you can have as a reference.

1. Fatigue or weakness

This is the most common symptom of potassium deficiency. Experts have found that potassium can regulate blood glucose levels, so its deficiency can translate into a sudden increase. This, among many other things, can make you feel fatigued, tired, sleepy, or weak.

The mineral is also known to regulate muscle contractions. A decrease in its values can cause slower contractions, which in turn will generate a feeling of weakness or lack of strength. Oftentimes, this symptom is mild, to the point that you can attribute it to lack of sleep or natural fatigue from your day.

A girl who's tired due to a lack of potassium.
Decreased potassium can cause marked fatigue through different metabolic pathways.

2. Muscle spasms

As we already noted, potassium regulates the functions that allow your muscles to contract. There’s a consensus among researchers that fluid and electrolyte imbalances can cause muscle spasms, which would explain why they’re more common in athletes who don’t take care of their hydration.

Given the absence of the mineral, involuntary muscle contractions can develop, lasting several seconds and even minutes. They’re often accompanied by pain and develop in the extremities. In severe cases, you can develop muscle paralysis.

3. Digestive disorders

As with other deficiencies, symptoms of potassium deficiency develop differently in people. This is why we use the label digestive disorders to refer to a series of conditions that can cause the absence of the mineral.

Some of the conditions that you can develop are constipation, intestinal spasms, abdominal bloating, diarrhea, and, according to some indications, intestinal paralysis. The latter is a consequence of the alteration of the nervous system and occurs only in severe cases.

4. Irregular heart rhythms

This symptom can develop with slight alterations if the patient meets two criteria: They suffer from a previous heart condition or take a medication that has a direct effect. Irregular heart rhythms, also known as arrhythmias, are a relatively common consequence of a lack of potassium.

Researchers have associated mineral deficiency with atrial fibrillation and even sudden death. Of course, a series of conjugations must come together for the development of more severe complications. For example, the patient has been diagnosed with high blood pressure or suffers from obesity.

5. Numbness and tingling in the extremities

Also known as paresthesia, this symptom brings together a series of sensations around the arms and legs. It occurs as a consequence of the deterioration of neuronal function, a product of a lack of potassium. The appearance is very irregular, both in its frequency and in the intensity with which it appears.

Importantly, a lack of potassium isn’t the only cause of experiences of this type. There are dozens of conditions that can produce it, so you should take note if you develop it.

6. Changes in mood

Although less common than the above signs, you’re also likely to have mood swings. Experts have found that a diet rich in electrolytes can have positive effects on mental health (reducing depression and stress).

In turn, researchers have pointed out that up to 20% of psychiatric patients are diagnosed with hypokalemia. Low potassium levels could have a negative effect on controlling emotions.

A teenage girl looking depressed.
Potassium deficiency stress and depression aren’t easy to identify as they can be confused with other causes.

Lack of potassium isn’t always clear

Unfortunately, this condition can’t be diagnosed based on its symptoms. These are taken as a reference, but it’s confirmed through laboratory tests. A blood and urine test can determine whether or not you have hypokalemia.

After diagnosis, treatment is promising and varies according to severity. For example, you can choose to take supplements orally, while in severe cases, they’re administered intravenously.

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