Can Potassium Loss Cause Cramps?

My husband works in extreme heat, as he is a welder. He has days when he sweats so much it looks like someone dipped his shirt in salt water. He has been getting bad cramps in his legs, arms, neck and hips. Could this be caused from lack of potassium? What can I do to help him?

Among all the Earth’s temperature extremes, humans have found their niche in the vicinity of 98 degrees Fahrenheit. A few degrees in either direction and the organism is imperiled. The problem faced by humans is how to keep their bodies regulated at their target temperature even as atmospheric conditions change by a hundred degrees or more. The stakes are high. Cellular processes break down quickly, causing organ damage or death whenever internal temperatures spiral out of control.

The precision of human temperature control is remarkable. How do we do it? Let’s focus on the dissipation of excess heat, or in other words, the cooling of the body. Everyone knows that we sweat in order to cool the body. The process of water evaporation removes heat. Most of what is lost during sweating is water, but as your husband demonstrates by the white residue on his skin, salts are lost, too. The salty taste of sweat is due to sodium chloride, or in other words, table salt.

Can Potassium Loss Cause Cramps?

I remember as a child, in the dark ages of sports medicine, when athletes were advised to take salt tablets in addition to water in order to prevent depletion of these electrolytes. This notion quickly fell out of favor, however, when it was pointed out that what people needed most was water. (The amount of electrolytes lost was usually minimal.)

Moreover, when taking salt tablets, it was easy to err on the side of too much salt. Doing so would cause the blood sodium to rise, compounding the effects of dehydration. It was analogous to people who were shipwrecked and adrift on the sea in lifeboats without drinking water. After becoming dehydrated and thirsty, they are tempted to drink seawater in a desperate attempt to wet their throats and quench their terrible thirst. Unfortunately, those who succumbed to the temptation only died more quickly because of an accelerated rise in their blood sodium.

Heavy sweating by itself is not a problem, but it becomes a problem if dehydration occurs. Not only is it important to listen to one’s thirst and respond by drinking, but it is even better to anticipate dehydration and drink more fluids than are needed — more than what one’s thirst might require — in order to maintain optimal strength and function. For most of us, water works just fine, but for someone sweating heavily for eight hours a day, the addition of a sports drink might be a good idea.

Sports drinks today are made to more closely mimic what is lost from the body. They are weak salt solutions to which are added energy sources such as glucose. They are fine to use, and are especially important during endurance races when electrolyte depletion is more apt to occur.

Potassium is included in these drinks because small amounts of potassium are indeed lost in sweat, and potassium is a vital electrolyte for muscle and heart function. Potassium depletion may cause muscle cramps, so it would be reasonable and important to have your husband’s potassium checked. Don’t be surprised if it is normal, however, since cramps occur for other reasons as well.

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