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1- Introduction

2- Pathophysiology

3- Symptoms

4- Treatment


Hyperkalemia is a medical condition characterized by higher than normal levels of potassium in the bloodstream. Potassium is an essential electrolyte that plays a crucial role in various bodily functions, including muscle contraction, nerve transmission, and maintaining heart rhythm. When potassium levels become elevated, it can disrupt these functions and lead to serious complications such as irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias) or even cardiac arrest. Hyperkalemia can occur due to various factors, including kidney disease, certain medications, excessive potassium intake, or conditions that cause cell damage releasing potassium into the bloodstream.

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The pathophysiology of hyperkalemia involves disruptions in the balance of potassium levels in the body, primarily regulated by kidney function and cellular processes. Normally, potassium is predominantly found inside cells, with only a small amount circulating in the bloodstream. This balance is crucial for maintaining proper electrical gradients across cell membranes, essential for muscle and nerve function, including cardiac muscle.

Several factors can lead to hyperkalemia. One common cause is impaired kidney function, where the kidneys fail to adequately excrete potassium from the body. This can occur in chronic kidney disease, acute kidney injury, or in conditions affecting renal tubular function. In these cases, potassium accumulates in the bloodstream rather than being properly excreted through urine.

Another mechanism involves shifts of potassium from inside cells to the extracellular space. This can happen due to cell damage or breakdown, such as in conditions like rhabdomyolysis (muscle breakdown), severe burns, or trauma. Conditions that affect acid-base balance, such as metabolic acidosis, can also lead to potassium moving out of cells and into the bloodstream.

Excessive intake of potassium-rich foods or supplements can contribute to hyperkalemia, although this is less common in individuals with normal kidney function as the kidneys can typically regulate potassium levels efficiently. Medications, particularly those that affect kidney function or potassium handling (e.g., certain diuretics, ACE inhibitors, or potassium-sparing diuretics), can also disrupt potassium balance and contribute to hyperkalemia.


  • Muscle Weakness: Weakness or fatigue, especially in the legs, arms, or even respiratory muscles.

  • Irregular Heartbeat: Cardiac arrhythmias are a serious complication of hyperkalemia and can manifest as palpitations, skipped heartbeats, or a sensation of fluttering in the chest.

  • Nausea and Vomiting: Gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and abdominal discomfort may occur.

  • Tingling or Numbness: Sensations of tingling, numbness, or unusual sensations in the extremities.

  • Difficulty Breathing: Respiratory muscle weakness can lead to shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.

  • Palpitations: Awareness of your heartbeat, feeling like it is pounding or racing.

  • Fatigue: Generalized tiredness or feeling unwell.

  • Paralysis: In severe cases, extreme muscle weakness or even paralysis can occur.


1. Acute Management:

  • Calcium Gluconate or Calcium Chloride: Administered intravenously, calcium stabilizes the cardiac membrane and can quickly counteract the effects of hyperkalemia on the heart.
  • Insulin and Glucose: Insulin drives potassium into cells, lowering serum potassium levels. Glucose is given alongside insulin to prevent hypoglycemia.
  • Sodium Bicarbonate: Used in acidotic states to shift potassium into cells.
  • Beta-2 Agonists (e.g., Albuterol): Administered via inhalation to promote potassium uptake into cells.

2. Potassium Redistribution:

  • Sodium Polystyrene Sulfonate (Kayexalate): Given orally or rectally, this medication exchanges sodium for potassium in the intestines, reducing serum potassium levels.
  • Patiromer (Veltassa) and Sodium Zirconium Cyclosilicate (Lokelma): Newer medications that bind potassium in the gastrointestinal tract, facilitating its elimination.

3. Enhancing Potassium Elimination:

  • Diuretics: Loop diuretics like furosemide may be used to increase urinary potassium excretion, especially in patients with adequate renal function.
  • Dialysis: Hemodialysis or peritoneal dialysis is effective for rapidly lowering potassium levels in severe cases, particularly when kidney function is impaired.

4. Addressing Underlying Causes:

  • Review and Adjust Medications: Discontinue or adjust medications that contribute to hyperkalemia, such as potassium-sparing diuretics (e.g., spironolactone), ACE inhibitors, or angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs).
  • Treat Underlying Kidney Disease: Optimize management of chronic kidney disease or acute kidney injury, which can impair potassium excretion.

5. Long-term Management and Prevention:

  • Dietary Modifications: Limit potassium-rich foods such as bananas, oranges, tomatoes, and potatoes. A registered dietitian can provide guidance on a low-potassium diet.
  • Monitoring and Follow-up: Regular monitoring of electrolyte levels and kidney function is essential, especially for individuals at risk of recurrent hyperkalemia.
  • Medication Adjustments: Consider alternative medications that do not affect potassium levels as severely, under the guidance of a healthcare provider.

6. Patient Education:

  • Symptom Recognition: Educate patients on signs and symptoms of hyperkalemia and when to seek medical attention.
  • Self-management: Encourage adherence to dietary restrictions, medications, and follow-up appointments to prevent recurrence.
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