Electrolytes are minerals necessary for a body to function properly, as they play a critical role in controlling your heart rate, balancing fluids, and keeping blood pressure stabilized. They can be found in blood, urine, and other bodily fluids. Electrolyte levels can be monitored using an electrolyte panel, also known as an electrolyte blood test (commonly known as a basic metabolic panel or comprehensive metabolic panel). Electrolyte panels are used in determining health issues based on electrolyte imbalances within your body.
What is an Electrolyte Panel.
An electrolyte panel is a specific type of blood test used to measure electrolytes, or minerals, found in our blood. If the electrolytes in the blood are not balanced, it could signal, or lead to, a problem with the heart, lungs, or kidneys. When a body does not have enough water, dehydration will cause an electrolyte imbalance. We also consider something called an anion gap, and/or a blood gas test, that can be used to derive additional information from the results of the electrolyte blood test.
What are Electrolytes.
As mentioned, electrolytes are minerals that have been dissolved into our bodily fluids and tissues. Electrolytes are naturally occurring, and however, they can be replenished by consuming certain foods, drinks, and dietary supplements. The term "electrolyte" refers to the electrical charge they inherit through the movement of ions. Electrolytes keep our bodies functioning properly by:
- Controlling your heart rate
- Aiding nerve and muscle functions
- Promoting oral health
- Keeping bodily fluids balanced
- Maintaining stable blood pressure levels
What Does an Electrolyte Panel Detect.
The primary function of an electrolyte blood test is to detect electrolyte imbalances within your body. These imbalances are based on a predefined range of numbers within which the electrolyte levels are supposed to fall. When the electrolyte levels lie outside of this range, it is an indication that something in the body is not functioning correctly.
Some potential causes of electrolyte imbalances that we consider include:
- Substance abuse
- Kidney disease
- Cirrhosis of the liver
Electrolyte blood tests are quick and easy, and therefore, they are often done around the time of physicals, routine checkups, and hospitalizations. The results can be immensely helpful to nurses and doctors in indicating potential causes of undiagnosed health problems.
What Minerals are Included in an Electrolyte Panel.
There are two electrolyte panels: those that measure one specific type of electrolyte and those that measure multiple types of electrolytes.
The mineral levels that are measured using an electrolyte panel include the following:
- Sodium: Helps nerve and muscle functions, maintain proper balance of water.
- Potassium: Supports metabolism and aids heart, nerve, and muscle functions.
- Calcium: Supports your musculoskeletal and circulatory systems.
- Chloride: Preservation of electrical neutrality and acid-base status
- Magnesium: Protein building, bone health, blood pressure regulation, muscle and nerve functions, fight or flight response regulation
- Phosphate: Aids in the development of teeth and bones.
- Bicarbonate: Helps balance acids and alkaline compounds in your blood.
Is Fasting Required for Electrolyte Blood Testing.
In most cases, fasting is not required for an electrolyte blood test. However, suppose your physician is using additional testing methods while the electrolyte panel is to be administered. In that case, they may advise you to avoid consuming any foods and drinks before your scheduled visit.
What Happens During the Electrolyte Blood Test.
A major benefit of using an electrolyte blood test is its simplicity. It is administered by drawing blood in a process similar to when donating blood. The convenience of the electrolyte panel allows for the test to be completed in a blood-testing lab, hospital, or at your physician's office. Typically, the blood draws itself is handled by a phlebotomist or a practitioner that has been specially trained in taking blood samples. The process takes only minutes, but this is dependent on the individual healthcare provider.
How Should I Prepare for the Test.
Unlike other tests, where you must fast or drink a disgusting chalky liquid before testing, the electrolyte blood test involves only minor preparation. The preparation typically includes:
- Staying properly hydrated: Drinking adequate amounts of water before the electrolyte panel will make it easier for the phlebotomist to draw your blood.
- Avoiding nicotine: Try to abstain from smoking, vaping, and chewing tobacco for several hours before your scheduled test. When nicotine enters the bloodstream, it causes the veins to constrict. When this happens, it is difficult to hit a vein with the needle.
- Making your concerns known: If you fear needles or blood, don't hesitate to let the phlebotomist know. By doing this, the blood draw technician can make arrangements to ensure that you are comfortable when it's time to draw your blood. This will help prevent any delays during your appointment.
What Happens After the Electrolyte Test.
After your blood has been drawn, the phlebotomist will monitor the spot where the needle was inserted to ensure that it does not continue to bleed. Once it’s been verified that there is no bleeding, they will place a bandage over the area where the needle was inserted. The bandage should be worn for at least two hours, as this helps prevent the wound from becoming infected.
You may experience redness and swelling at the needle site, but it should return to normal within a few days. If the area is painful when touched or a bruise forms, place an ice pack on it to relieve any discomfort. In addition, avoid strenuous activities, such as lifting heavy objects or playing sports, because they could cause you to become light-headed or dizzy.
Are the Risks in Taking the Electrolyte Test.
While uncommon, some patients experience dizziness and nausea following a blood draw. This typically occurs in individuals that suffer from low blood pressure, as the blood draw may cause their blood pressure levels to drop even further. If you feel like you might faint, let the staff know so they can assist you until your blood pressure returns to normal.
How Long Does it Take to Get the Test Results Back?
It typically takes 3 to 7 days for the test results to come back, but this varies because numerous factors can affect the speed at which the test is analyzed and processed. Once the results are back, your physician will schedule a consultation to discuss any steps that might be needed moving forward.
What if there is an Electrolyte Imbalance.
There is no need to stress simply because your electrolyte numbers are outside the normal range, as various factors could cause this. The laboratory that processed the test could be the reason for the imbalance, and this is because there is no standardized way of measuring electrolytes, which means that the results could be different for each lab.
Other factors, such as your gender, age, and pre existing health issues, can all cause electrolyte readings to fluctuate, even if there are no problems to address.
Of course, the test results need to be taken seriously because the imbalance could indicate a health issue requiring attention. Once your doctor reviews all the material, they may request that you undergo additional testing.
Further Testing Methods.
Two commonly used tests utilize the results of the electrolyte panel for further measurements, and these are:
- Anion gap test. This test measures the gap between electrolytes with a positive charge and a negative charge. When the difference in these charges is out of the normal range, it could signal a problem with your organs, usually the lungs or kidneys.
- Blood gas test. This test varies from the anion gap test in that it measures the levels of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and acidity in your blood. It is incredibly accurate in determining issues causing an acid-base imbalance in your body, like lung or kidney problems.
Are There Do-It-Yourself Electrolyte Tests Available.
With all of the in-home tests available these days, it wouldn't be surprising if DIY electrolyte panels were on the market. But as of right now, these tests do not exist. After all, drawing blood is not something that can be learned overnight, and it would be unsafe to attempt it. There would also be difficulties keeping the blood from becoming contaminated and, consequently, rendering it useless.
The Electrolyte Panel is Here to Stay.
The electrolyte panel, also called the electrolyte blood test, is an efficient and effective means for measuring electrolytes in your blood. These readings show electrolyte imbalances in the body, indicating an array of health issues, such as diabetes, cancer, and organ problems. A blood draw is required for the test, and the results are available within days. Furthermore, the data from the electrolyte panel can be used with other tests, like the anion gap test and the blood gas test, which measure specifically target differences in electrolytes. With its ease of use and countless benefits, there is doubt that the electrolyte panel is here to stay.