Hypokalemic periodic paralysis

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Hypokalemic periodic paralysis
Other nameshypoKPP
Autosomal dominant - en.svg
This condition is inherited in an autosomal dominant manner
Specialty Neurology, neuromuscular medicine   OOjs UI icon edit-ltr-progressive.svg

Hypokalemic periodic paralysis (hypoKPP), also known as familial hypokalemic periodic paralysis (FHPP), [1] is a rare, autosomal dominant channelopathy characterized by muscle weakness or paralysis when there is a fall in potassium levels in the blood. In individuals with this mutation, attacks sometimes begin in adolescence and most commonly occur with individual triggers such as rest after strenuous exercise (attacks during exercise are rare), high carbohydrate meals, meals with high sodium content, sudden changes in temperature, and even excitement, noise, flashing lights, cold temperatures and stress. Weakness may be mild and limited to certain muscle groups, or more severe full-body paralysis. During an attack, reflexes may be decreased or absent. Attacks may last for a few hours or persist for several days. Recovery is usually sudden when it occurs, due to release of potassium from swollen muscles as they recover. Some patients may fall into an abortive attack or develop chronic muscle weakness later in life.


Some people only develop symptoms of periodic paralysis due to hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid). This entity is distinguished with thyroid function tests, and the diagnosis is instead called thyrotoxic periodic paralysis. [2]

Signs and symptoms

Hypokalemic periodic paralysis is a condition that causes episodes of extreme muscle weakness typically beginning in childhood or adolescence. Most often, these episodes involve a temporary inability to move muscles in the arms and legs. Attacks cause severe weakness or paralysis that usually lasts from hours to days. Some people may have episodes almost every day, while others experience them weekly, monthly, or only rarely. Attacks can occur without warning or can be triggered by factors such as rest after exercise, a viral illness, or certain medications. Often, a large, carbohydrate-rich meal or vigorous exercise in the evening can trigger an attack upon waking the following morning. Although affected individuals usually regain their muscle strength between attacks, some develop persistent muscle weakness later in life. [3]


Mutations in the following genes can cause hypokalemic periodic paralysis:

Type OMIM GeneLocus
HOKPP1 170400 CACNA1S (a voltage-gated calcium channel Cav1.1 found in the transverse tubules of skeletal muscle cells)1q32
HOKPP2 613345 SCN4A (a voltage-gated sodium channel Nav1.4 found at the neuromuscular junction)17q23.1-q25.3
170390 KCNJ2 (an inward-rectifier potassium channel Kir2.1)17q24.3

An association with KCNE3 (voltage-gated potassium channel) has also been described, but is currently disputed, [4] and excluded from the disease definition in OMIM. [5]

Action potentials from the central nervous system cause end-plate potentials at the NMJ which causes sodium ions to enter and depolarise the muscle cells. This depolarisation propagates to the T-tubules where it triggers the entry of calcium ions via Cav1.1 as well as from the sarcoplasmic reticulum through the associated ryanodine receptor RyR1. This causes contraction (tensing) of the muscle. Depolarisation of the motor end plate causes potassium ions to leave the muscle cells, repolarising the muscle and closing the calcium channels. Calcium is pumped away from the contractile apparatus and the muscle relaxes.[ citation needed ]

Mutations altering the usual structure and function of these channels therefore disrupts regulation of muscle contraction, leading to episodes of severe muscle weakness or paralysis. Mutations have been identified in arginine residues making up the voltage sensor of Nav1.4. This voltage sensor comprises the S4 alpha helix of each of the four transmembrane domains (I-IV) of the protein, and contains basic residues that only allow entry of the positive sodium ions at appropriate membrane voltages by blocking or opening the channel pore. In Cav1.1, mutations have also been found in domains II and IV. These mutations are loss-of-function, such that the channels cannot open normally.[ citation needed ]

In patients with mutations in SCN4A or CACNA1S, therefore, the channel has a reduced excitability and signals from the central nervous system are unable to depolarise the muscle. As a result, the muscle cannot contract efficiently (paralysis). The condition is hypokalemic (manifests when potassium is low; not "causing hypokalemia") because a low extracellular potassium ion concentration will cause the muscle to repolarise to the resting potential more quickly, so even if calcium conductance does occur it cannot be sustained. It becomes more difficult to reach the calcium threshold at which the muscle can contract, and even if this is reached then the muscle is more likely to relax. Because of this, the severity would be reduced if potassium ion concentrations are kept high. [6] [7] [8]

Mutations in KCNJ2 lead to hypokalemic periodic paralysis with cardiac arrhythmias called Andersen–Tawil syndrome.[ citation needed ]

In contrast, hyperkalemic periodic paralysis refers to gain-of-function mutations in sodium channels that maintain muscle depolarisation and therefore are aggravated by high potassium ion concentrations.[ citation needed ]

This condition is inherited in an autosomal dominant pattern (but with a high proportion of sporadic cases), which means one copy of the altered gene in each cell is sufficient to cause the disorder.[ citation needed ]


Diagnosis can be achieved through a specialized form of electromyographic (EMG) testing called the long exercise test. This test measures the amplitude of a nerve response (called the Compound Muscle Action Potential or CMAP) for 40 to 50 minutes following a few minutes of exercise. In affected patients, there is a progressive fall in the amplitude of the potential. Besides the patient history or a report of serum potassium low normal or low during an attack, the long exercise test is the current standard for medical testing. Genetic diagnosis is often unreliable as only a few of the more common gene locations are tested, but even with more extensive testing 20–37% of people with a clinical diagnosis of hypokalemic periodic paralysis have no known mutation in the two known genes. [9] Standard EMG testing cannot diagnose a patient unless they are in a full blown attack at the time of testing. Provoking an attack with exercise and diet then trying oral potassium can be diagnostic, but also dangerous as this form of PP has an alternate form known as hyperkalemic periodic paralysis. The symptoms are almost the same, but the treatment is different. The old glucose insulin challenge is dangerous and risky to the point of being life-threatening and should never be done when other options are so readily available.[ citation needed ] Factors known to trigger episodes are: stress, cold environment or hypothermia, carbohydrate load, infection, glucose infusion, metabolic alkalosis, alcohol, strenuous exercise, and steroids.[ citation needed ]

People with hypokalemic periodic paralysis are often misdiagnosed as having a conversion disorder or hysterical paralysis since the weakness is muscle-based and doesn't correspond to nerve or spinal root distributions. The tendency of people with hypokalemic periodic paralysis to get paralyzed when epinephrine is released in "fight or flight" situations further adds to the temptation to misdiagnose the disorder as psychiatric. [10]


Treatment of hypokalemic periodic paralysis focuses on preventing further attacks and relieving acute symptoms. Avoiding carbohydrate-rich meals, strenuous exercise and other identified triggers, and taking acetazolamide or another carbonic anhydrase inhibitor, may help prevent attacks of weakness. Some patients also take potassium-sparing diuretics such as spironolactone to help maintain potassium levels. [11]

Paralysis attacks can be managed by drinking one of various potassium salts dissolved in water (debate exists over which, if any one in particular, is best used, but potassium chloride and bicarbonate are common). Rapidly absorbed boluses of liquid potassium are generally needed to abort an attack, but some patients also find positive maintenance results with time-released potassium tablets. IV potassium is seldom justified unless the patient is unable to swallow. Daily potassium dosage may need to be much higher than for potassium replacement from simple hypokalemia: 100-150 mEqs of potassium is often needed to manage daily fluctuations in muscle strength and function.[ citation needed ]

Perioperatively, prevention includes avoiding neuromuscular blockade, avoid excessive hyperventilation, warm the patient, provide adequate hydration, avoid glucose infusions, do not give diuretics, and closely monitor the electrocardiogram for signs of hypokalemia. Normal saline is the preferred IV solution for patients with familial hypokalemic periodic paralysis. Glucose containing solutions may cause weakness. Additionally, the high chloride content can cause a mild acidosis which would be preferred over alkalosis.[ citation needed ]


The prognosis for periodic paralysis varies. Overactivity, a diet that is not low in sodium and carbohydrates, or simply an unfortunate gene mutation can lead to a type of chronic, low level weakness called an "abortive attack," or to permanent muscle damage. Abortive attacks often respond to extra potassium, cutting carbohydrates, getting plenty of rest, increasing doses of medication and gentle daily exercise such as short walks. Permanent muscle weakness is just what it sounds like: Permanent, irreparable damage to the muscles and associated weakness. Vacuoles and tubular aggregates form in and destroy healthy muscle tissue. This type of damage can typically be observed via a muscle biopsy. Not even anabolic steroids can repair this type of muscular damage.[ citation needed ]

Life span is expected to be normal, [12] but attacks can drop potassium to levels low enough to cause life-threatening breathing problems or heart arrhythmia. Patients often report muscle pain and cognitive problems during attacks. Migraines occur in up to 50% of all hypokalemic periodic paralysis patients and may include less common symptoms like phantom smells, sensitivity to light and sound or loss of words. Medical literatures states that muscle strength is normal between attacks, but patients often report that their baseline strength is in fact lower than that of healthy individuals.[ citation needed ]

Because there are dozens of possible gene mutations, some drugs and treatments that work fine for one patient will not work for another. For example, most patients do well on acetazolamide, but some don't. Some patients will do well with extra magnesium (the body's natural ion channel blocker) or fish oil, while these same nutrients will make other patients worse. Patients and caregivers should take extreme caution with all new drugs and treatment plans.[ citation needed ]


In 1935 the Scottish physician Dr Mary Walker was the first to recognise the association between familial periodical paralysis and hypokalaemia. She also described the glucose challenge test used in diagnosing hypokalaemic periodic paralysis and the use of intravenous potassium in its treatment. [13] [14] [15]

See also

Related Research Articles

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Long QT syndrome (LQTS) is a condition in which repolarization of the heart after a heartbeat is affected. It results in an increased risk of an irregular heartbeat which can result in fainting, drowning, seizures, or sudden death. These episodes can be triggered by exercise or stress. Some rare forms of LQTS are associated with other symptoms and signs including deafness and periods of muscle weakness.

Myotonia is a symptom of a small handful of certain neuromuscular disorders characterized by delayed relaxation of the skeletal muscles after voluntary contraction or electrical stimulation.

Hyperkalemia Medical condition

Hyperkalemia is an elevated level of potassium (K+) in the blood. Normal potassium levels are between 3.5 and 5.0 mmol/L (3.5 and 5.0 mEq/L) with levels above 5.5 mmol/L defined as hyperkalemia. Typically hyperkalemia does not cause symptoms. Occasionally when severe it can cause palpitations, muscle pain, muscle weakness, or numbness. Hyperkalemia can cause an abnormal heart rhythm which can result in cardiac arrest and death.

Hyperkalemic periodic paralysis is an inherited autosomal dominant disorder that affects sodium channels in muscle cells and the ability to regulate potassium levels in the blood. It is characterized by muscle hyperexcitability or weakness which, exacerbated by potassium, heat or cold, can lead to uncontrolled shaking followed by paralysis. Onset usually occurs in early childhood, but it still occurs with adults.

Romano–Ward syndrome Medical condition

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Andersen–Tawil syndrome Rare autosomal dominant genetic disorder

Andersen–Tawil syndrome, also called Andersen syndrome and long QT syndrome 7, is a rare genetic disorder affecting several parts of the body. The three predominant features of Andersen–Tawil syndrome include disturbances of the electrical function of the heart characterised by an abnormality seen on an electrocardiogram and a tendency to abnormal heart rhythms, physical characteristics including low-set ears and a small lower jaw, and intermittent periods of muscle weakness known as hypokalaemic periodic paralysis.

Gitelman syndrome Medical condition

Gitelman syndrome (GS) is an autosomal recessive kidney tubule disorder characterized by low blood levels of potassium and magnesium, decreased excretion of calcium in the urine, and elevated blood pH. The disorder is caused by genetic mutations resulting in improper function of the thiazide-sensitive sodium-chloride symporter located in the distal convoluted tubule of the kidney. The distal convoluted tubule of the kidney plays an important homoestatic role in sodium and chloride absorption as well as of the reabsorption of magnesium and calcium.

Channelopathy Diseases caused by disturbed function of ion channel subunits or the proteins that regulate them

Channelopathies are diseases caused by disturbed function of ion channel subunits or the proteins that regulate them. These diseases may be either congenital or acquired.

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Sodium channel protein type 4 subunit alpha is a protein that in humans is encoded by the SCN4A gene.

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Potassium-aggravated myotonia is a rare genetic disorder that affects skeletal muscle. Beginning in childhood or adolescence, people with this condition experience bouts of sustained muscle tensing (myotonia) that prevent muscles from relaxing normally. Myotonia causes muscle stiffness, often painful, that worsens after exercise and may be aggravated by eating potassium-rich foods such as bananas and potatoes. Stiffness occurs in skeletal muscles throughout the body. Potassium-aggravated myotonia ranges in severity from mild episodes of muscle stiffness to severe, disabling disease with frequent attacks. Potassium-aggravated myotonia may, in some cases, also cause paradoxical myotonia, in which myotonia becomes more severe at the time of movement instead of after movement has ceased. Unlike some other forms of myotonia, potassium-aggravated myotonia is not associated with episodes of muscle weakness.


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Paroxysmal exercise-induced dystonia Medical condition

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Thyrotoxic periodic paralysis Human disease

Thyrotoxic periodic paralysis (TPP) is a condition featuring attacks of muscle weakness in the presence of hyperthyroidism. Hypokalemia is usually present during attacks. The condition may be life-threatening if weakness of the breathing muscles leads to respiratory failure, or if the low potassium levels lead to cardiac arrhythmias. If untreated, it is typically recurrent in nature.

The Kir2.6 also known as inward rectifier potassium channel 18 is a protein that in humans is encoded by the KCNJ18 gene. Kir2.6 is an inward-rectifier potassium ion channel.

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Hypokalemic sensory overstimulation is characterized by a subjective experience of sensory overload and a relative resistance to lidocaine local anesthesia. The sensory overload is treatable with oral potassium gluconate. Individuals with this condition are sometimes diagnosed as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), raising the possibility that a subtype of ADHD has a cause that can be understood mechanistically and treated in a novel way.

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