Electrolyte imbalance: Types, Causes, Symptoms & Treatments

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What Are Electrolyte imbalance?

Electrolyte disorders result in an imbalance of minerals in the body. For the body to function properly, certain minerals need to be maintained in an even balance. Otherwise, vital body systems, such as the muscles and brain, can be negatively affected.

Electrolytes refer to minerals that include calcium, chloride, magnesium, phosphate, potassium, and sodium. They are present in your blood, body fluids, and urine. They are ingested with food, drink, and medicines and supplements.

What are some symptoms of Electrolyte imbalance to look for?

  • As described, an electrolyte imbalance may create a number of symptoms.  The symptoms of electrolyte imbalance are based on which of the electrolyte levels are affected.
  • If your blood test results indicate an altered potassium, magnesium, sodium, or calcium levels, you may experience muscle spasm, weakness, twitching, or convulsions.
  • Blood test results showing low levels may lead to: irregular heartbeat, confusion, blood pressure changes, nervous system or bone disorders.
  • Blood test results showing high levels may lead to: weakness or twitching of the muscles, numbness, fatigue, irregular heartbeat and blood pressure changes.

What causes Electrolyte imbalance?

The balance of electrolytes is constantly shifting due to fluctuating fluids in your body. For example, when you sweat as a result of exercise, hot weather, or illness, levels of certain electrolytes may be low. Vomiting and diarrhea are other causes of electrolyte imbalances, as they result in excessive fluid loss.

Electrolyte imbalances can also be caused by a deficiency or an overabundance of minerals in the body.

Medical causes of electrolyte imbalances

Electrolyte imbalances can be caused by medical conditions including:

  • Addison’s disease (deceased production of hormones by the adrenal glands)
  • Alcoholism, which causes the breakdown of muscle fibers, resulting in potassium being released into the bloodstream
  • Diabetes
  • Diarrhea
  • Heat exhaustion
  • Kidney disease
  • Vomiting

Medication-related causes of electrolyte imbalances

Electrolyte imbalances may be caused by medications including:

  • Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors
  • Calcium supplements
  • Certain hormones that are potassium-sparing (lead to the retention of potassium by the kidneys)
  • Diuretics, which promote fluid excretion by the kidneys
  • Potassium supplements

Serious or life-threatening causes of electrolyte imbalances

In some cases, electrolyte imbalances may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:

  • Dehydration
  • Shock

Types of Electrolyte imbalance

Elevated levels of an electrolyte begin with the prefix “hyper-“.  Depleted levels of an electrolyte begin with “hypo-“.

Conditions caused by electrolyte level imbalances include:

  • Calcium: hypercalcemia and hypocalcemia
  • Chloride: hyperchloremia and hypochloremia
  • Magnesium: hypermagnesemia and hypomagnesemia
  • Phosphate: hyperphosphatemia and hypophosphatemia
  • Potassium: hyperkalemia and hypokalemia
  • Sodium: hypernatremia and hyponatremia

How is an electrolyte imbalance diagnosed?

An electrolyte imbalance is usually diagnosed based upon information obtained through:

  • Your history of symptoms.
  • A physical examination by your healthcare provider.
  • Urine and blood test results.
  • If there are other abnormalities based on these findings, your healthcare provider may suggest further testing, such as an EKG.  (Severely high or low potassium, magnesium and/or sodium levels can affect your heart rhythm.)
  • If you have an electrolyte imbalance due to kidney problems, your healthcare provider may want to do an ultrasound or x-ray of your kidneys.

Treating an Electrolyte imbalance

Treatment depends both on which disorder a patient has and what the underlying problem is that causes the imbalance in the first place.

Treatments that may be used to restore balance:

  • Intravenous (IV) fluids can help rehydrate the body. This is common in cases of dehydration from vomiting or diarrhea. IV fluids can also deliver medications to help flush excess minerals from the blood and bodily fluids.
  • Oral medications can be used to flush excess minerals from the body quickly.
  • Hemodialysis can remove excess waste from the blood. This is common when the disorder is caused by kidney disease or kidney damage.
  • Supplements can help replace depleted electrolytes on a short-term basis.

Once the imbalance has been corrected, a doctor will treat the underlying cause. This will prevent future electrolyte imbalances.

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