Risks of Low Potassium Levels During Anesthesia

Your potassium level can influence your anesthesia.

Your potassium level can influence your anesthesia.

Your heart feels love and desire, but it also pumps the blood through your body. Being asleep for surgery is now safer than ever, but sometimes having a low potassium level can increase the risks during anesthesia and surgery. This is because potassium helps your muscles and heart contract.

Potassium and Anesthesia

Since potassium helps your heart muscles and skeletal muscles contract, the levels need to be within a certain range. Your body keeps the potassium inside a normal range using your kidneys, intestines and hormones. Doctors used to believe that low potassium was a risk before anesthesia and surgery. The current thinking is that your body can tolerate a low potassium level easily during surgery. Occasionally, the doctors may decide to increase your potassium level beforehand depending on how low it is.

Potassium and Muscles

Potassium carries an electrical charge. Your muscles are made of cells that use electricity to contract. Potassium, sodium and calcium carry electricity for the cells while they contract. Cells use the sodium-potassium pump to keep the correct balance of potassium and sodium. If the levels of electricity carrying electrolytes fall too low, your muscles will contract abnormally. You may also feel cramps and weakness in your muscles. If the potassium drops drastically, your muscles may feel paralyzed.

Heart and Blood Pressure

The medications used to give you anesthesia can sometimes sensitize the heart to skip beats. This means that even though your heart beats normally, it becomes more sensitive to potassium levels that are below normal. When your heart beats slowly, the condition is called bradycardia. Your heart may also contract out of rhythm, which is called fibrillation. Another side effect of low potassium is that your blood pressure can drop very low.

Anesthesia Risks

The good news is that your low level of potassium is less of a problem during surgery and anesthesia then a high level of potassium. Over the years, doctors have become more experienced with administering anesthesia to people with low potassium levels. Sometimes they will correct the potassium level, and other times they will modify the anesthesia administered. Your doctor may decide not change anything about the surgery or anesthesia except to monitor your response. Anesthesiologists and anesthetists are trained to predict, minimize and manage this condition during your surgery.

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About the Author

Dr. Kamel Ghandour is assistant professor of medicine at Quinnipiac University School of Medicine. He has been writing for 10 years, contributing to such publications as the "Journal of Clinical Anesthesia" and the journal "Anesthesia & Analgesia." He specializes in anesthesia and pain medicine.

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