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General Considerations

Potassium is the principal cation of the intracellular fluid (ICF) where its concentration is between 120 and 150 mEq/L. The extracellular fluid (ECF) and plasma potassium concentration [K] is much lower—in the 3.5–5.0 mEq/L range. The very large transcellular gradient is maintained by active K transport via the Na-K-ATPase pumps present in all cell membranes and the ionic permeability characteristics of these membranes. The resulting greater than 40-fold transmembrane [K] gradient is the principal determinant of the transcellular resting potential gradient, about −90 mV with the cell interior negative (Figure 4–1). Normal cell function requires maintenance of the ECF [K] within a relatively narrow range. This is particularly important for excitable cells such as myocytes and neurons. The pathophysiologic effects of dyskalemia on these cells result in most of the clinical manifestations.

Figure 4–1.

Transcellular ion movement. Most cells contain these pumps, antiporters, and channels. The effects of insulin, catecholamines, and thyroid hormones on K transport are shown.

Individual potassium intakes vary widely—a typical Western diet provides between 50 and 100 mEq K per day. Under steady-state conditions, an equal amount is excreted, mainly in urine (about 90%), and to a lesser extent in stool (5–10%) and sweat (1–10%). Normally, homeostatic mechanisms maintain plasma [K] precisely between 3.5 and 5.0 mEq/L. Rapid regulation of potassium concentration is needed to prevent potentially fatal hyperkalemia after every meal and is largely due to transcellular K shifts. The normal postprandial rise in insulin concentration moves both K and glucose into the intracellular compartment, where 98% of total body K (˜3000 mEq) is located. Postprandial insulin release is primarily related to increased plasma glucose concentrations but hyperkalemia also directly stimulates pancreatic β-cells to release insulin. Insulin deficiency and/or resistance increase plasma [K]. Epinephrine and norepinephrine also rapidly regulate transcellular K balance and become especially important during and following vigorous exercise. Hyperadrenergic states such as alcohol withdrawal and hyperthyroidism, β-sympathomimetics such as the tocolytic terbutaline, and theophylline poisoning often generate hypokalemia due to translocation of K from the ECF into cells.

Metabolic alkalosis stimulates cellular K uptake whereas some forms of hyperchloremic and other inorganic (mineral) acidoses enhance movement of K out of cells. However, the common organic metabolic acidoses (lactic and ketoacidosis) do not directly cause any K shift. Respiratory acid–base abnormalities generally have small effects. Although it had been assumed that the alkalemia produced by respiratory alkalosis would move K into cells, the opposite has been found, ie, a small increase in plasma [K] due to associated α-adrenergic stimulation. Respiratory acidosis increases plasma [K] slightly. Hyperosmotic conditions that shift fluid out of cells are an important cause of K translocation to the ECF. Finally, hypokalemia per se moves K from the intracellular to the extracellular space.

Potassium Metabolism

Potassium absorption in the small intestine ...

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