Ionized molecules found in blood, tissues and cells throughout the body, electrolytes are either positive or negative. They conduct electric current and help to balance the body’s pH and acid-base levels. Electrolytes also enable fluid to pass between and within cells by osmosis and play a part in regulating the functions of the neuromuscular, endocrine and excretory systems.
An electrolyte disorder occurs when there is an imbalance of the ionized salts in the blood. The functions affected depend upon the electrolytes involved:
- Sodium – Helps to balance fluid levels and facilitate neuromuscular functioning.
- Potassium – A main component of cellular fluid, helps to regulate neuromuscular function and osmotic pressure.
- Calcium – Affects neuromuscular performance and contributes to skeletal growth and blood coagulation.
- Magnesium – Influences muscle contractions and intracellular activity.
- Chloride – Regulates blood pressure.
- Phosphate – Impacts metabolism and regulates acid-base balance and calcium levels.
- Bicarbonate – Assists in the regulation of blood pH levels. Insufficiencies and elevations cause acid-base disorders (i.e., acidosis, alkalosis).
Causes and Symptoms
There are a number of different causes for electrolyte disorders, including medications, chronic diseases and trauma. Symptoms vary according to the type of electrolyte disorder, but may involve dehydration, concentrated urine, loss of skin elasticity, irregular heartbeat, irritability, fatigue, labored breathing, muscle twitching or seizures, nausea, headache, swelling, paralysis, disorientation, coma, diarrhea, muscle pain, cardiac arrest, tingling in hands/fingers, convulsions, weight loss and/or bone deformities.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Since symptoms are so varied and encompassing, it is imperative that a diagnosis is performed by a qualified healthcare provider by taking a medical history, discussing symptoms, performing a complete examination and prescribing appropriate laboratory tests. Treatment depends upon the underlying cause of the problem and the type of electrolyte involved. If the disorder is caused by poor diet or improper fluid intake, nutritional changes may be prescribed. If medications trigger the imbalance, they may be discontinued or adjusted. Fluid and electrolyte replacement therapy – either orally or intravenously – can reverse the depletion.
Hemodialysis may be required for some patients with impaired kidney function or those with renal disease. When treated quickly and appropriately, electrolyte imbalances are usually effectively reversed.
Contact us for more information on electrolyte disorders and how we can help prevent or treat them.