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Low Potassium & Cardiac Arrest

By Lori Newell

Cardiac arrest, which occurs when the heart muscle abruptly stops pumping, can result in death if steps to revive the patient are not taken with a few minutes. The body needs proper nutrition for the heart muscle to function correctly. A diet high in fat, salt and cholesterol can contribute to heart disease, which can cause cardiac arrest. A diet low in essential vitamins and minerals can cause problems as well. This includes a low level of potassium, which can hinder the heart muscle from working properly.


The heart beats when it receives electrical signals from the nervous system that tell it to contract. These electrical signals tell the heart how hard and fast to pump. If this electrical system is disrupted for any reason, the heart may develop an arrhythmia, or irregular rhythm. In the case of cardiac arrest, the arrhythmia causes the heart to stop beating, states the MedlinePlus website.


Potassium is an electrolyte that plays many important functions in the body, including helping muscles to contract in a smooth and coordinated fashion. If there is not enough potassium in the body, a condition called hypokalemia, any muscle in the body can be affected. This includes the muscles that control the heart. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, when potassium levels get too low, the heart will beat erratically and an arrhythmia can develop.


Hypokalemia has many causes. The Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center recommends that those at high risk be on the lookout for symptoms such as an irregular pulse, muscle weakness, cramping, limpness, trouble breathing, leg discomfort; extreme thirst, frequent urination and confusion. Low potassium levels can occur alongside many chronic diseases, be a side effect of a medication or be due to constant vomiting or diarrhea from an illness. Those with eating disorders or diets poor in potassium rich foods are also at risk for hypokalemia.


If a victim experiences the symptoms of cardiac arrest, which includes a loss of consciousness, cessation of breathing and a loss of pulse or blood pressure, an ambulance should be called right away. It is essential that a shock is delivered to the heart within one to two minutes, by a medical professional or a member of the lay public trained in CPR and defibrillation, reports the American Heart Association. A victim's chances of survival drop by 7 to 10 percent for every minute that passes without defibrillation.


The best bet is to take steps to prevent cardiac arrest whenever possible. This means quitting smoking, getting regular exercise, managing stress and eating a diet that is low in salt, fat and cholesterol. The diet should include a wide variety of foods with a focus on plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. In addition, those 10 years and older should aim to get 2,000 mg of potassium every day. Potassium is found in meat, milk, fruits and vegetables, reports the University of Maryland Medical Center. If a deficiency is suspected, a physician can run tests and then recommend supplementation if necessary. This is important because too much potassium can lead to health problems as well so supplements should only be taken under medical supervision.

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