Potassium and the heart

Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1984 Jul;13(2):249-68. doi: 10.1016/s0300-595x(84)80021-3.


The electrical stability of the heart is more sensitive to the extracellular than to the intracellular potassium concentration. During exercise, extracellular potassium varies rapidly. Catecholamines also modulate the plasma potassium concentration. Hypokalaemia of any cause can precipitate arrhythmias. Ischaemic myocardium loses potassium into the extracellular space within seconds and the cell becomes depolarized. The rise of the extracellular potassium ion concentration accounts for many of the early electrophysiological changes. Abrupt changes of plasma potassium concentration in normal myocardium and a high potassium concentration in ischaemic myocardium can set up electrical forces which initiate arrhythmias. The same phenomenon can account for changes on the electrocardiogram early after the cessation of an exercise test in a patient with ischaemic heart disease. Accumulation of potassium between cells in response to an increase of heart rate is a possible mechanism for false positive exercise tests and Syndrome X.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acidosis / metabolism
  • Action Potentials
  • Angioplasty, Balloon
  • Animals
  • Catecholamines / physiology
  • Coronary Disease / metabolism
  • Digoxin / pharmacology
  • Diuretics / pharmacology
  • Exercise Test
  • False Positive Reactions
  • Heart / drug effects
  • Heart / physiology
  • Heart Rate
  • Humans
  • Hyperkalemia / metabolism
  • Hypokalemia / metabolism
  • Myocardium / metabolism*
  • Physical Exertion
  • Potassium / metabolism*
  • Potassium / physiology
  • Syndrome


  • Catecholamines
  • Diuretics
  • Digoxin
  • Potassium