What is potassium?

Potassium is a chemical element, which in combination with other minerals in the body forms alkaline salts that are important in body processes and play an essential role in the maintenance of the acid water and acid base balance in the human body. All body cells, especially those of the muscle tissue, require a high content of potassium to stay healthy. A proper balance between calcium, sodium, and potassium in the blood plasma is necessary for proper cardiac function. Potassium is also the major intracellular electrolyte, which plays an important role in the maintaining of the volume of intracellular fluid, the osmotic balance and the electrical conduction of the muscle cells. The homeostasis cell is maintained by an active system (the sodium-potassium pump), that then transports the sodium and potassium inside and outside of the membrane.

Potassium assists in a range of essential body functions, including the following, blood pressure, normal water balance, muscle contractions, nerve impulses, digestion, heart rhythm, and pH balance (acidity and alkalinity). Potassium is not produced naturally by the body, therefore it is important to consume the right balance of potassium rich foods and beverages to maintain healthy levels of potassium within your body.

Why measure the level of potassium?

Measuring the level of potassium within the patient’s body can provide us with useful information on renal function, and diseases related to potassium deficiency. Since most foods contain a good supply of potassium, potassium deficiency or hypokalemia is unlikely to be caused by an unbalanced diet of the patient. Possible causes include cushing's syndrome (due to an adrenal gland disorder) and fanconi's syndrome (the result of a congenital kidney defect). The cause could also be an excessive dose of cortisone, prolonged vomiting or diarrhea, or thiazide diuretics, which are administered for treatment of hypertension. Signs of potassium deficiency can include weakness and lethargy, rapid pulse, nausea, diarrhea, and tingling sensations. If the body absorbs enough potassium but the element is not distributed properly, various disorders may develop. Thus an abnormally low content of potassium in the blood may result in an intermittent temporary paralysis of the muscles, known as familial periodic paralysis.

Your blood potassium level is normally 3.6 to 5.2 millimoles per liter (mmol/L). Having a blood potassium level higher than 7.0 mmol/L can be dangerous and requires immediate treatment. A very low potassium level (less than 2.5 mmol/L) can be life-threatening and requires urgent medical attention.

Standard of preparation

Sampling is usually done in the morning in the hospital. The doctor will advise and recommend if you need to be fasting prior to the blood examination. In this case it is recommended that the patient does fast prior to the exam, and arrives with an empty stomach. You should inform your doctor of any medication you are taking prior to the exam, as some medical treatments may interfere with the blood results.

Is the examination painful or dangerous?

The examination is neither painful nor dangerous. The patient may feel a tingling sensation with the entrance of the needle in the arm when blood is being extracted for examination.

How is the exam performed?

The exam consists of a simple blood sample test.