For the human body to function properly, blood levels of potassium need to be within normal limits. Abdominal pain is a symptom associated with many diseases. However, low blood levels of potassium, or hypokalemia, can cause this problem. Hypokalemia can be life-threatening when severe and it has many causes.
Hypokalemia can happen when the body loses large amounts of potassium due to kidney dysfunction. An adrenal hormone called aldosterone regulates potassium levels in the blood by stimulating the kidneys to retain sodium and rid the body of potassium. High amounts of this hormone leads to excessive loss of potassium and this can cause hypokalemia. Adrenal tumors can lead to over production of aldosterone. Hypokalemia can also happen when certain drugs or diseases cause potassium in the bloodstream to move into the cells. Loss of potassium through the gastrointestinal tract as a result of vomiting or diarrhea can also cause hypokalemia.
Potassium has very important functions in the body. It ensures that nerves and muscles in the body work as they should. The cardiac muscles of the heart, skeletal muscles and smooth muscles are able to contract because of potassium. Additionally, the digestive system is made of smooth muscles that contract rhythmically to propel food down the gastrointestinal tract -- this propulsion is described as peristalsis. Low blood levels of potassium can disrupt peristalsis.
When blood levels of potassium are low, the smooth muscles of the gastrointestinal tract become weak. This weakness can progress to intestinal paralysis. According to the Linus Pauling Institute, intestinal paralysis is manifested as abdominal pain and other symptoms such as constipation and bloating.
To determine if a person has hypokalemia, several blood tests are run. The potassium content of the blood is measured to see if the levels are actually low. Other tests done in hypokalemia are the BUN or blood urea nitrogen, and creatinine tests. They are done to see if the kidneys are working well. An electrocardiogram is also done to monitor the heart, because hypokalemia can cause irregular heart beats.
Medscape explains that the first step in hypokalemia treatment involves identifying and stopping ongoing potassium loss. In this case, medications that cause hypokalemia may be stopped or replaced. Next, potassium levels are replenished by administering oral or intravenous potassium. Surgery may be required if factors such as tumors of the adrenal glands or intestinal obstruction -- which can cause vomiting -- are the underlying cause of hypokalemia.