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Major causes of hypokalemia are outlined in Table 1-3. Atrial and ventricular arrhythmias are the most serious health consequences of hypokalemia. Pts with concurrent Mg deficit and/or digoxin therapy are at a particularly increased risk of arrhythmias. Hypokalemia can directly prolong the QT interval and is a significant cofactor in arrhythmias due to other causes of a prolonged QT interval. Other clinical manifestations include muscle weakness, which may be profound at serum [K+] <2.5 mmol/L, and, if hypokalemia is sustained, hypertension, ileus, polyuria, renal cysts, and even renal failure.
I. Decreased intake
II. Redistribution into cells
III. Increased loss
The cause of hypokalemia is usually obvious from history, physical examination, and/or basic laboratory tests. However, persistent hypokalemia may require a more thorough, systematic evaluation (Fig. 1-2). Initial laboratory evaluation should include electrolytes, BUN, creatinine, serum osmolality, Mg2+, and Ca2+, a complete blood count, and urinary pH, osmolality, creatinine, and electrolytes. Serum and urine osmolality are required for calculation of the transtubular K+ gradient (TTKG), which should be <3 in the presence of hypokalemia (See Also Hyperkalemia). Alternatively, a urinary K+-to-creatinine ratio of >13-mmol/g creatinine (>1.5-mmol/mmol creatinine) is compatible with excessive K+ excretion. Further tests such as urinary Mg2+ and Ca2+ and/or plasma renin and aldosterone levels may be necessary in specific cases.