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Hyperkalemic periodic paralysis
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Reviewed August 2013
What is hyperkalemic periodic paralysis?
Hyperkalemic periodic paralysis is a condition that causes episodes of extreme muscle weakness or paralysis, usually beginning in infancy or early childhood. Most often, these episodes involve a temporary inability to move muscles in the arms and legs. Episodes tend to increase in frequency until mid-adulthood, after which they occur less frequently. Factors that can trigger attacks include rest after exercise, potassium-rich foods such as bananas and potatoes, stress, fatigue, alcohol, pregnancy, exposure to cold temperatures, certain medications, and periods without food (fasting). Muscle strength usually returns to normal between attacks, although many affected people continue to experience mild stiffness (myotonia), particularly in muscles of the face and hands.
Most people with hyperkalemic periodic paralysis have increased levels of potassium in their blood (hyperkalemia) during attacks. Hyperkalemia results when the weak or paralyzed muscles release potassium ions into the bloodstream. In other cases, attacks are associated with normal blood potassium levels (normokalemia). Ingesting potassium can trigger attacks in affected individuals, even if blood potassium levels do not go up.
How common is hyperkalemic periodic paralysis?
Hyperkalemic periodic paralysis affects an estimated 1 in 200,000 people.
What genes are related to hyperkalemic periodic paralysis?
Mutations in the SCN4A gene can cause hyperkalemic periodic paralysis. The SCN4A gene provides instructions for making a protein that plays an essential role in muscles used for movement (skeletal muscles). For the body to move normally, these muscles must tense (contract) and relax in a coordinated way. One of the changes that helps trigger muscle contractions is the flow of positively charged atoms (ions), including sodium, into muscle cells. The SCN4A protein forms channels that control the flow of sodium ions into these cells.
Mutations in the SCN4A gene alter the usual structure and function of sodium channels. The altered channels stay open too long or do not stay closed long enough, allowing more sodium ions to flow into muscle cells. This increase in sodium ions triggers the release of potassium from muscle cells, which causes more sodium channels to open and stimulates the flow of even more sodium ions into these cells. These changes in ion transport reduce the ability of skeletal muscles to contract, leading to episodes of muscle weakness or paralysis.
In 30 to 40 percent of cases, the cause of hyperkalemic periodic paralysis is unknown. Changes in other genes, which have not been identified, likely cause the disorder in these cases.
Read more about the SCN4A gene.
How do people inherit hyperkalemic periodic paralysis?
This condition is inherited in an autosomal dominant pattern, which means one copy of the altered gene in each cell is sufficient to cause the disorder.
In most cases, an affected person has one parent with the condition.
Where can I find information about diagnosis or management of hyperkalemic periodic paralysis?
These resources address the diagnosis or management of hyperkalemic periodic paralysis and may include treatment providers.
General information about the diagnosis and management of genetic conditions is available in the Handbook. Read more about genetic testing, particularly the difference between clinical tests and research tests.
To locate a healthcare provider, see How can I find a genetics professional in my area? in the Handbook.
Where can I find additional information about hyperkalemic periodic paralysis?
You may find the following resources about hyperkalemic periodic paralysis helpful. These materials are written for the general public.
You may also be interested in these resources, which are designed for healthcare professionals and researchers.
What other names do people use for hyperkalemic periodic paralysis?
What if I still have specific questions about hyperkalemic periodic paralysis?
Where can I find general information about genetic conditions?
The Handbook provides basic information about genetics in clear language.
These links provide additional genetics resources that may be useful.
What glossary definitions help with understanding hyperkalemic periodic paralysis?
You may find definitions for these and many other terms in the Genetics Home Reference Glossary.
See also Understanding Medical Terminology.
References (8 links)
The resources on this site should not be used as a substitute for professional medical care or advice. Users seeking information about a personal genetic disease, syndrome, or condition should consult with a qualified healthcare professional. See How can I find a genetics professional in my area? in the Handbook.