Human Potassium Deficiency Symptoms

Potassium, an electrolyte, is important for proper cell, tissue and organ function. Potassium is obtained from eating foods that are high in potassium, such as meats, fruits, beans and potatoes. Low levels of potassium in the blood, known as hypokalemia, can cause serious and life-threatening symptoms. Hypokalemia can result from kidney disease, liver disease, diuretics (water pills) used to treat heart failure or when the body is depleted of potassium due to excessive sweating, vomiting or diarrhea.

Irregular Heartbeat

Potassium plays an important role in heart function and is necessary for the transmission of electrical impulses in cardiac muscles. Low potassium can cause an irregular heartbeat and, in severe cases, can cause heart rhythm disturbances, which can lead to cardiac arrest and death. Medical attention should be sought immediately if palpitations occur.

Intestinal Paralysis

Smooth muscle cells are found in the colon, and low potassium can cause slow peristaltic movement of the colon, which causes gastric distress. Constipation, bloating and abdominal discomfort are all symptoms of a slow-moving colon.

Muscle Weakness/Leg Discomfort

Legs cramps during exercise can be the the first indication that potassium in the blood is low. Moderate hypokalemia can cause leg cramps while sitting, which can only be relieved by stomping the feet or changing the position of the legs. Although rare, severe hypokalemia can cause flaccid paralysis, which causes the body to lose muscle tone and go limp.

About this Author

Shelly Guillory has been a registered nurse for seven years, specializing in the areas of oncology, infectious disease, and psychiatric nursing. Guillory has been writing for six years and is currently pursing degrees in journalism and photography at the University of Utah.