I had about 1/3 of my small intestine removed after suffering from severe radiation enteritis. I woke up from surgery with some strange side effects that took months and even years to get a handle on. One of those problems was that I couldn’t properly absorb potassium. That can be deadly. Potassium is one of the critical electrolytes your body needs to maintain muscle and nerve function; particularly the heart, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Why Can’t You Absorb Potassium? Your small intestine absorbs nutrients and different parts of your small intestine absorb different nutrients. If you have an entire section removed, you no longer have the ability or a greatly reduced ability to absorb those nutrients. Often, you will have difficulty absorbing more than one nutrient. For instance, I have a problem absorbing magnesium, potassium, B12, and calcium.
The good news is that sometimes, not always, the small intestine can adapt to absorb more nutrients over time. The process of adaption can take up to two years or possibly never happen, but if you just had surgery and didn’t have too much removed, there is hope.
Side Effects of Low Potassium: The side effects of severely low potassium or hypolykemia, are pretty horrible. I have muscle spasms, numb and tingly feet (like a diabetic person), chest pain, fatigue, weakness, and abnormal heart rhythms. A potassium level lower than 2.5 is life threatening and requires urgent and immediate medical attention. You can go into cardiac arrest.
If you have had a small bowel resection and experience these symptoms, have your doctor check you potassium level with a blood test. I had to live for almost 6 months with these symptoms before my doctor finally figured out what was wrong. Luckily, I had to get an IV every other day at the hospital and they would check to see if I needed potassium or magnesium, and I would get it intravenously.
How It’s Treated: You cannot treat this condition yourself. You could buy the best over the counter potassium supplement and you would never be able to absorb enough to make a difference. You’ll need prescription strength potassium and most likely have to take a ton of it every single day for the rest of your life. The pills are huge!
Something that will really help you feel better is to get a handle on how much you’re going to the bathroom. If your potassium levels are low and you have diarrhea often, ask your doctor about Lomotil. Some patients with Chron’s disease and IBS may not be able to safely take Lomotil because of a risk of developing Mega Colon, which can be deadly. Both of these medications are prescription strength, so you’ll have to talk to your doctor.
Be Vigilant: Be vigilant about taking your potassium medication if you have problems absorbing it. Skipping just one dose can cause serious consequences. If you travel, make sure you have enough for the entire trip. Also, there are times when the manufacturers are running behind schedule. Never wait until the last moment to refill! This happened to me once and the pharmacy told me it would be days before they could fill it. I explained that I could die without it. I had to go to the ER and set up IV appointments for five days. That’s no fun!
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