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As a long-time hypertensive, I'm no stranger to blood tests. When I recently went to have my routine blood work done, the physician's assistant contacted me to tell me that my potassium levels were high and that I should have another blood test within the fortnight. Of course, I was a little shocked, especially when she told me how important it was to come in again, making it all sound extremely serious. I knew it could indicate poor kidney function, which runs in my family, so my thoughts immediately wandered to being stuck to a dialysis machine.
Are you in the same situation? Don't panic immediately. More information should help you get a clearer idea of what hyperkalemia is and how it may affect you in the future.
What Is Hyperkalemia?
Hyperkalemia is a medical term means elevated potassium levels. Potassium is without a doubt an essential mineral; it keeps your heart, kidneys and other body systems running well, and not having enough potassium can lead to serious health problems like hypertension, heart disease, infertility, stroke, arthritis, digestive disorders, and even cancer. Unhealthy lifestyle habits like smoking, abusing alcohol and drugs, being excessively physically active and having eating disorders can all lead to a lack of potassium. These issues are all pretty common. This is why you have probably heard about people taking potassium supplements to bring their levels of the stuff up.
Hyperkalemia is much less discussed, but no less dangerous. Normal blood potassium levels are between 3.6 and 5.2 millimoles per liter (mmol/L), and you have too much if you're over that. Having potassium levels of 7.0 mmol/L or higher poses a real risk to your health. As such, it deserves to be taken extremely seriously and requires immediate treatment. More about that later.
Hyperkalemia: Causes And Symptoms
You can usually expect to have high potassium diagnosed during routine blood testing for a preexiting condition or because you're taking medications and your doctor wants to monitor the state of your blood. If you're in this boat, you may not have symptoms at all, or at least not symptoms you can recognize as being caused by hyperkalemia. Your potassium levels may raise over time, causing gradual symptoms you cannot easily pinpoint as well.
If you do have symptoms, they're likely to include some of the following:
- Muscle aches
- A slow heartbeat and a weak pulse