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Diagnosis and treatment of hyperkalemia

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Is the hyperkalemia the result of a cellular shift?

Acute hyperkalemia can be the result of redistribution of cellular potassium. Shifting of as little as 2% of the body’s potassium from the intracellular to the extracellular space can double the plasma potassium concentration.

Tissue injury. Hyperkalemia frequently occurs in diseases that cause tissue injury such as rhabdomyolysis, trauma, massive hemolysis, and tumor lysis.

Insulin deficiency. Insulin and catecholamines are major regulators of potassium distribution within the body. After a meal, release of insulin not only regulates the plasma glucose concentration, it also causes potassium to move into cells until the kidneys have had sufficient time to excrete the dietary potassium load and reestablish total-body potassium content.

Exercise, beta-blockers. During exercise, potassium is released from skeletal muscle cells and accumulates in the interstitial compartment, where it exerts a vasodilatory effect. The simultaneous increase in circulating catecholamines regulates this release by promoting cell potassium uptake through beta-adrenergic receptor stimulation.

Metabolic acidosis can facilitate exit (ie, shift) of potassium from cells, but this effect depends on the type of acidosis. Hyperchloremic normal anion gap acidosis (mineral acidosis) most commonly causes this effect due to the relative impermeability of the cell membrane to the chloride anion. As hydrogen ions move into the cell due to accumulation of ammonium chloride or hydrogen chloride, electrical neutrality is maintained by potassium exit.

In contrast, organic acidosis (due to lactic, beta-hydroxybutyric, or methylmalonic acid) tends not to cause a potassium shift, since most organic anions readily cross the cell membrane along with hydrogen. Lactic acidosis is often associated with potassium shift, but this effect is due to loss of cell integrity as a result of cell ischemia. The hyperkalemia typically present on admission in patients with diabetic ketoacidosis is the result of insulin deficiency and hypertonicity and not the underlying organic acidosis.10

Hypertonic states can cause hyperkalemia due to cell shift. For example, hyperglycemia, as in diabetic ketoacidosis, pulls water from the intracellular into the extracellular compartment, thereby concentrating intracellular potassium and creating a more favorable gradient for potassium efflux through membrane channels. This same effect can occur in neurosurgical patients given large amounts of hypertonic mannitol. Repetitive doses of immunoglobulin can lead to extracellular accumulation of sorbitol, maltose, or sucrose, since these sugars are added to the preparations to prevent immunoglobulin aggregation.11

Is a disturbance in renal potassium excretion present?

Sustained hyperkalemia is more commonly associated with decreases in renal potassium excretion than with a cellular shift. In most instances the clinician can distinguish between cell shift and impaired renal excretion based on the available clinical data.

The transtubular potassium gradient has been used to determine whether there is a disturbance in renal potassium excretion and to assess renal potassium handling.12

Transtubular potassium gradient

This calculation is based on the assumption that only water is reabsorbed past the cortical collecting duct, and not solutes. It has fallen out of favor since we have found this assumption to be incorrect; a large amount of urea is reabsorbed daily in the downstream medullary collecting duct as a result of intrarenal recycling of urea.

The one situation in which the transtubular potassium gradient may be of use is determining whether hyperkalemia is a result of low aldosterone levels as opposed to aldosterone resistance. One can compare the transtubular potassium gradient before and after a physiologic dose (0.05 mg) of 9-alpha fludrocortisone. An increase of more than 6 over a 4-hour period favors aldosterone deficiency, whereas smaller changes would indicate aldosterone resistance.

24-hour potassium excretion, spot urine potassium-creatinine ratio. A better way to assess renal potassium handling is to measure the amount of potassium in a 24-hour urine collection or determine a spot urine potassium-creatinine ratio. A 24-hour urinary potassium excretion of less than 15 mmol or a potassium-creatinine ratio less than 1 suggests an extrarenal cause of hypokalemia. A ratio greater than 20 would be an appropriate renal response to hyperkalemia.

One or more of 3 abnormalities should be considered in the hyperkalemic patient with impaired renal excretion of potassium:

  • Decreased distal delivery of sodium
  • Mineralocorticoid deficiency
  • Abnormal cortical collecting tubule function.13

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