Effect of Potassium and Calcium Ions on Heart Function

In the discussion of membrane potentials in Chapter 5, it was pointed out that potassium ions have a marked effect on membrane potentials, and in Chapter 6 it was noted that calcium ions play an especially important role in activating the muscle contractile process. Therefore, it is to be expected that the concentration of each of these two ions in the extracellular fluids should also have important effects on cardiac pumping.

Effect of Potassium Ions. Excess potassium in the extracellular fluids causes the heart to become dilated and flaccid and also slows the heart rate. Large quantities also can block conduction of the cardiac impulse from the atria to the ventricles through the A-V bundle. Elevation of potassium concentration to only 8 to 12 mEq/L—two to three times the normal value—can cause such weakness of the heart and abnormal rhythm that this can cause death.

These effects result partially from the fact that a high potassium concentration in the extracellular fluids decreases the resting membrane potential in the cardiac muscle fibers, as explained in Chapter 5. As the membrane potential decreases, the intensity of the action potential also decreases, which makes contraction of the heart progressively weaker.

Effect of Calcium Ions. An excess of calcium ions causes effects almost exactly opposite to those of potassium ions, causing the heart to go toward spastic contraction. This is caused by a direct effect of calcium ions to initiate the cardiac contractile process, as explained earlier in the chapter.

Conversely, deficiency of calcium ions causes cardiac flaccidity, similar to the effect of high potassium. Fortunately, however, calcium ion levels in the blood normally are regulated within a very narrow range. Therefore, cardiac effects of abnormal calcium concentrations are seldom of clinical concern.

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