How Should Hyponatremia Be Evaluated and Managed?


How Should Hyponatremia<br /><br />
</p><p>Be Evaluated and Managed? click for large version

Hyponatremia is an electrolyte imbalance in which the sodium ion concentration in the plasma is lower than normal. Normal serum sodium levels are between approximately 135 and 145 mEq/L. Hyponatremia is generally defined as a serum level of less than 135 mEq/L. Shown on the left is a normal brain. On the right, serum sodium ion level is less than 130 mEq/L and water is drawn into the cells, causing the brain to swell.


A 67-year-old male patient who has depression and is on sertraline presents with increasing confusion over the past week. Initial plasma sodium is 109 mEq/L. On exam, he weighs 70 kg and is euvolemic. His urine osmolarity (Uosm) is 800 mosm/L with a urine sodium (UNa) of 40 mEq/L. He is somnolent but awakens to sternal rub. How should this patient’s hyponatremia be evaluated and managed?


Hyponatremia, a disorder of excess total body water in relation to sodium, occurs in up to 42% of hospitalized patients.1,2 Regardless of the cause, hyponatremia is usually associated with the syndrome of inappropriate antidiuretic hormone secretion (SIADH) or with the appropriate elevation of antidiuretic hormone (ADH), known as hypovolemia. ADH is produced in the hypothalamus and released in the posterior pituitary in response to increasing plasma osmolarity (pOSM) or effective circulating volume depletion. ADH acts in the cortical collecting duct to increase the number of luminal aquaporin channels, increasing water reabsorption and decreasing plasma osmolarity. When hyponatremia is severe, the movement of water into cells causes cellular brain swelling, and clinical symptoms progress from malaise, headache, and nausea to obtundation, seizures, or respiratory arrest (see Figure 1). Even mild, chronic hyponatremia (120-131 mEq/L) is associated with an increased risk of falls due to mild gait and attention impairment.3


Step 1: Plasma osmolarity

The first step in diagnosing the cause of hyponatremia and treating it is to measure pOSM. The majority of patients with hyponatremia have hypoosmolar hyponatremia and therefore have a low pOSM; however, patients may have normal or high osmolarity. Hyponatremia with normal osmolarity can be caused by pseudohyponatremia (i.e., hyperglycemia, paraproteinemia, hyperlipidemia), severe renal failure, ingestion of excess alcohol, or post-transurethral resection of prostate or bladder.

Key Points

  • Always evaluate hyponatremic patients with UNa and Uosm.
  • Goal rate of sodium correction is 6 to 8 mEq/L in 24 hours, 12 to 14 mEq/L in 48 hours.
  • Use hypertonic saline for severe symptomatic hyponatremia.

Hyponatremia with high pOSM occurs as a result of elevated levels of an extra solute in the plasma that does not readily enter cells. This draws water into the extracellular fluid and lowers the sodium concentration. This will most commonly result from hyperglycemia or infusion of mannitol.

Step 2: Assess volume status with physical exam, urine sodium (UNa)

The majority of patients with hyponatremia will have low pOSM. These patients should be categorized by volume status: hypovolemic, euvolemic, or hypervolemic (see Figure 2). On exam, hypervolemia is usually evident, and the cause of hypervolemic hyponatremia is usually elicited from a patient’s history; however, differentiating between hypovolemic and euvolemic hyponatremia by history and physical exam can be difficult, because examination findings are neither sensitive nor specific.4 UNa should always be evaluated, especially when differentiating between hypovolemic and euvolemic. This was illustrated in a study of 58 non-edematous patients with hyponatremia. Investigators determined which patients had hypovolemic hyponatremia based on their response to saline infusion. Of the patients identified as hypovolemic using physical exam, only 47% responded to saline. In contrast, a spot UNa of less than 30 mEq/L was 80% sensitive and 100% specific for saline responsiveness.5 Although the majority of hypovolemic hyponatremia patients will have a low UNa, the following causes of hypovolemic hyponatremia can result in high UNa: diuretics, adrenal insufficiency, salt-wasting nephropathy, and cerebral salt-wasting.

Hyponatremia with normal osmolarity can be caused by pseudohyponatremia (i.e., hyperglycemia, paraproteinemia, hyperlipidemia), severe renal failure, ingestion of excess alcohol, or post-transurethral resection of prostate or bladder.

A low serum uric acid can also be useful in differentiating hypovolemic and euvolemic hyponatremia, which is most commonly caused by SIADH. In SIADH, there is urinary wasting of uric acid, which leads to low serum uric acid. In a study of 105 patients with lung cancer, a serum uric acid of less than 4 mg/dL was 75% sensitive and 89% specific for SIADH.6

Figure 1. Symptoms of euvolemic hyponatremia click for large version

Figure 1. Symptoms of euvolemic hyponatremia

Step 3: Urine osmolarity

After determining volume status, the physician should determine if there is excess ADH by measuring Uosm. Under normal conditions, hyponatremia should suppress ADH secretion and allow the kidney to excrete water by diluting the urine to less than 100 mosm/L. If Uosm is less than 100 mosm/L, then the kidneys are responding appropriately and can only persist in the following situations: The patient is drinking large volumes of water (e.g. primary polydipsia), there is insufficient solute to excrete free water (e.g. beer potomania, “tea and toast” diet), or the patient has a different set point for ADH suppression (i.e., reset osmostat). After determining volume status, UNa, and Uosm, the physician will have narrowed the cause of hyponatremia significantly (see Figure 2). Of note, when SIADH is diagnosed, it is important to look for and reverse causes (see Figure 3).

Figure 2. Algorithmic approach to hyponatremia click for large version

Figure 2. Algorithmic approach to hyponatremia

Figure 3. Causes of SIADH click for large version

Figure 3. Causes of SIADH


Severe symptomatic hyponatremia

In patients with severe neurologic symptoms, physicians must balance the need to reduce symptoms quickly with the dangers of overly rapid correction. After its use in marathon runners, several experts have endorsed the following regimen to reduce symptoms rapidly: an intravenous bolus of 100 mL of 3% saline is given and repeated if symptoms persist after 10 minutes.7,8 Once symptoms improve, the basal rate can be calculated using the equation below, but the rate of sodium correction in 24 hours with this regimen should not exceed 6 to 8 mEq/L in 24 hours or 12 to 14 mEq/L in 48 hours.9,10 This is based on several case studies showing that there were no cases of central pontine myelinolysis (CPM) if correction rates were less than 10 mEq/L over 24 hours.11,12

It is important to remember that this is only a rough guide, because the equation assumes the entire infusate is retained and there is no sodium or water output. The best way to avoid overly rapid correction is to check serum sodium every two hours and monitor urine output closely. If the patient is making large volumes of urine, serum sodium may be rising too quickly. If the patient corrects too rapidly, it may be possible to avoid CPM by re-lowering the sodium.13 This can be accomplished by giving desmopressin to slow urinary free water loss while simultaneously giving hypotonic fluids.

Asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic hyponatremia

Hypovolemic hyponatremia: Treatment of hypovolemic hyponatremia is aimed at correcting volume status, the underlying problem that drives ADH secretion. The body will always choose to preserve volume over osmolarity. In most cases, normal saline (NS) should be used to restore intravascular volume, and the rate of infusion can be calculated using the same equation as above. Once volume is replete, ADH release will cease. Patients will be in danger of overly rapid correction of serum sodium, so fluids should be switched to hypotonic solutions, such as ½ NS.

Euvolemic Hyponatremia: Euvolemic hyponatremia, typically caused by SIADH, is characterized by a high Uosm (>100 mosm/L) and a high UNa (>30 mEq/L). All patients require free water restriction, and fluid intake should be at least 500 mL below a patient’s urine output, usually one liter or less. If this is ineffective, salt tabs can be given. Salt tabs will increase the solute load, necessitating an increase in urine output. Patients should be given approximately nine grams of salt tabs in three divided doses (equivalent to 1 L of NS). Patients with highly concentrated urine (Uosm >500 mosm/L) will not respond as well to the salt load, because the kidneys will continue to excrete much of the sodium in a concentrated urine. In such patients, a loop diuretic can be used to help excrete free water, because it decreases the Uosm to about ½ NS (154 mOsm/L). One possible regimen is 20-40 mg of oral furosemide two to three times daily.

Hypervolemic Hyponatremia: Hypervolemic hyponatremia is caused by congestive heart failure (CHF), cirrhosis, or nephrotic syndrome. In all cases, there is excess ADH as a result of the carotid baroreceptors sensing a decrease in effective circulation volume. In the case of CHF and cirrhosis, the degree of hyponatremia is a marker of disease severity, but there is no data to show that correction of hyponatremia improves outcomes. Fluid restriction is the cornerstone of therapy, but if the patient’s volume status is not optimized, then loop diuretics may improve hyponatremia through excretion of diluted urine. In addition, angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors can improve hyponatremia in CHF by reducing ADH levels and improving cardiac output via afterload reduction.

There has been recent interest in the use of vasopressin V2 receptor antagonists or “vaptans.” The SALT 1 and 2 trials, which included patients with CHF and cirrhosis, showed that they are effective in increasing serum sodium and improving mental function in the short term. But there are concerns about hepatotoxicity, overly rapid correction of serum sodium, lack of mortality benefit, and cost.14 The latest American Heart Association CHF guidelines recommend (class IIb) vaptans in patients with “hyponatremia that may be causing cognitive symptoms when standard measures have failed.”15 Tolvaptan, in particular, should not be used in cirrhotic patients due to concerns of hepatotoxicity.

Outcome of the Case

Because of the high UNa and Uosm and the use of a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), the treating physician suspects the patient has SIADH. Given the severe symptoms, he is given 100 mL of 3% hypertonic saline and experiences improvement in his lethargy. Repeat sodium is 112 mEq/L. Using the equation above, a basal rate is calculated:

Change in serum sodium from 1 L of 3% saline= 514 mEq/L -112 mEq/L = 9.4 mEq 43 L

Because the goal correction rate is 6-8 mEq/L in 24 hours and the sodium has already increased by three, the physician elects to increase the sodium by 5 mEq/L for a total of 8 mEq/L for 24 hours:

5.0 mEq x 1000 ml = 532 ml of 3% saline ÷ 24 hours = 22 mL/hr. 9.4 mEq

Serum sodium is checked every two hours. The following day, the sodium is 115 mEq/L and the patient is fully alert. The hypertonic saline is stopped and the patient is maintained on free water restriction. Some 72 hours later, the sodium is 124 mEq/L.

Dr. Chang is co-director of the medicine-geriatrics clerkship, director of education in the division of hospital medicine, and assistant professor in the department of medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. Dr. Madeira is clinical instructor in the department of general internal medicine at the NYU School of Medicine and a hospitalist at the VA NY Harbor Healthcare System.

Additional Reading

  • Rose BD, Post TW. Introduction to disorders of osmolality. Hypoosmolal states: hyponatremia. In: Rose BD, Post TW. Clinical Physiology of Acid-Base and Electrolyte Disorders, 5th Ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2001: 682-745.
  • Ellison DH, Berl T. Clinical practice. The syndrome of inappropriate antidiuresis. N Engl J Med. 2007;356(20):2064-2072.
  • Adrogué HJ, Madias NE. Hyponatremia. N Engl J Med. 2000;342(21):1581-1589.
  • Verbalis JG, Goldsmith SR, Greenberg A, et al. Diagnosis, evaluation, and treatment of hyponatremia: expert panel recommendations. Am J Med. 2013;126(10, Suppl 1):S1-42.


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