Electrolyte Imbalance & Dehydration

June 12, 2017

Article Written By Laura Ruhlmann, DPT

During these hot summer months, I often have patients complaining of increased muscle cramps. My first response is always, “How are your hydration levels? And not just water.”

Muscles require sufficient electrolytes (sodium, magnesium, potassium, chloride) to function at optimal levels.   When these electrolytes become imbalanced or deficient, the body’s electrical impulses can become disrupted, leading to muscle cramps. 

Common causes of electrolyte imbalances include: sweat, urination, diarrhea, medication side effects (as when taking diuretics), or problems with absorption. Long-distance athletes and those who exercise regularly (especially outside in the hot summer months) are prone to cramps.  The elderly are more susceptible to dehydration than younger people.  This can be due to multiple reasons including lack of thirst sensation, naturally occurring changes in water and sodium balance, and polypharmacy (or taking multiple medications).

Sports drinks can make an excellent hydration choice as they have added electrolytes.   For exercise lasting > or = to 60 minutes, sports drinks can boost endurance performance compared to just drinking water.   Looking for a more natural option? Fruit can also be used to re-fuel and reboost carbohydrates after a workout.



American College of Sports Medicine. (2011). Selecting and Effectively Using Sports

Drinks, Carbohydrate Gels and Energy Bars. Retrieved from: www.acsm.org

Muscle Cramps and Spasms: The Electrolyte Misconnection. Retrieved from:                   


Schols, J.M., DeGroot, C.P., van der Cammen, T.J., & Olde Rikkert, M.G. (2009).

Preventing and treating dehydration in the elderly during periods of illness and warm weather. The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging, 13(2), 150-157.  Abstract retrieved from PubMed.gov. (PMID: 19214345).