Diagnosis and treatment of hyperkalemia

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Hyperkalemia results either from the shift of potassium out of cells or from abnormal renal potassium excretion. Cell shift leads to transient increases in the plasma potassium concentration, whereas decreased renal excretion of potassium leads to sustained hyperkalemia. Impairments in renal potassium excretion can be the result of reduced sodium delivery to the distal nephron, decreased mineralocorticoid level or activity, or abnormalities in the cortical collecting duct. In some instances, all 3 of these perturbations are present. Excessive intake of potassium can cause hyperkalemia but usually in the setting of impaired renal function. We discuss the clinical manifestations of hyperkalemia and outline an approach to its diagnosis and treatment.


  • Exclude pseudohyperkalemia in patients who have a normal electrocardiogram and no risk factors for the development of hyperkalemia.
  • Decreased distal delivery of sodium, reduced mineralocorticoid levels or activity, and a distal tubular defect are causes of impaired renal potassium secretion.
  • Medical conditions and medications that alter the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system can give rise to hyperkalemia.



Hyperkalemia is common in patients with cardiovascular disease. Its consequences can be severe and life-threatening, and its management and prevention require a multidisciplinary approach that entails reducing intake of high-potassium foods, adjusting medications that cause hyperkalemia, and adding medications that reduce the plasma potassium concentration. With this approach, patients at high risk can receive the cardiorenal benefits of drugs that block the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system without developing hyperkalemia.


The body of a typical 70-kg man contains about 3,500 mmol of potassium, 98% of which is in the intracellular space; the remaining 2% is in the extracellular space. This large intracellular-to-extracellular gradient determines the cell voltage and explains why disorders in plasma potassium give rise to manifestations in excitable tissues such as the heart and nervous system.

The most important determinants of potassium distribution between the intracellular and extracellular space are insulin and beta-adrenergic receptor stimulation.

Maintenance of total-body potassium content is primarily the job of the kidneys, with a small contribution by the gastrointestinal tract.1,2 Hyperkalemia is most commonly encountered in patients with decreased kidney function.

The normal kidney can secrete a large amount of potassium, making hyperkalemia uncommon in the absence of kidney disease. This large capacity may have evolved to handle the diet of Paleolithic humans, which contained 4 times as much potassium as contemporary diets.3,4 With the onset of agriculture, dietary intake of potassium has progressively declined while sodium intake has risen. A popular theory suggests this mismatch between the modern diet and the nutritional requirements encoded in the human genome during evolution may contribute to chronic diseases such as hypertension, stroke, kidney stones, and bone disease.5


Causes of hyperkalemia

Causes of hyperkalemia are outlined in Table 1. Shifting of potassium from the cells to the extracellular space is a cause of transient hyperkalemia, while chronic hyperkalemia indicates an impairment in renal potassium secretion. The following discussion is a guide to the approach to the hyperkalemic patient.

Is the patient’s hyperkalemia really pseudohyperkalemia?

Pseudohyperkalemia, an artifact of measurement, occurs due to mechanical release of potassium from cells during phlebotomy or specimen processing.6 This diagnosis is made when the serum potassium concentration exceeds the plasma potassium concentration by more than 0.5 mmol/L, and should be considered when hyperkalemia occurs in the absence of a clinical risk factor. Fist-clenching, application of a tight-fitting tourniquet, or use of small-bore needles during phlebotomy can all cause pseudohyperkalemia.

Mechanism of pseudohyperkalemia. Since serum is the liquid part of blood remaining after coagulation, release of potassium from cells injured during the process of coagulation raises the potassium level in the serum. Plasma is the cell-free part of blood that has been treated with anticoagulants; it has no cells that can be injured and release potassium. Thus, the serum potassium level will be higher than that in the plasma.

Reverse pseudohyperkalemia, in contrast, occurs when the plasma potassium level is falsely elevated but the serum value is normal. This situation has been described in hematologic disorders characterized by pronounced leukocytosis in which malignant cells are prone to lysis with minimal mechanical stress due to increased fragility or altered sodium-potassium ATPase pump activity.7 This phenomenon is unusual but occurs because the cells are so fragile.

A spurious increase in plasma potassium concentration along with a low plasma calcium concentration raises the possibility of calcium chelation and release of potassium in a sample tube contaminated with the anticoagulant ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid.

Is there increased potassium intake?

Increased potassium intake is a potential cause of hyperkalemia in patients with decreased kidney function or adrenal disease.

Foods naturally rich in potassium include bananas (a medium-sized banana contains 451 mg or 12 mmol of potassium) and potatoes (844 mg or 22 mmol in a large baked potato with skin). Other potassium-rich foods are melons, citrus juice, and avocados. Less-obvious food sources include raw coconut juice (potassium concentration 44.3 mmol/L) and noni juice (56 mmol/L).

Salt substitutes, recommended to hypertensive patients with chronic kidney disease, can be a hidden source of dietary potassium.

Clay ingestion is a potential cause of dyskalemia. White clay consumption causes hypokalemia due to potassium binding in the gastrointestinal tract. Red clay or river bed clay, on the other hand, is enriched in potassium (100 mmol of potassium in 100 g of clay) and can cause life-threatening hyperkalemia in patients with chronic kidney disease.8

Eating burnt match heads. Some individuals chew and ingest burnt match heads, a condition called cautopyreiophagia. In one reported case,9 this activity contributed an additional 80 mmol of daily potassium intake in a dialysis patient, resulting in a plasma potassium concentration of 8 mmol/L.


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