We studied the relation between ionized magnesium, total magnesium, and albumin levels in serum of 115 critically ill patients and the role of extracellular and intracellular magnesium in outcome prediction. Levels of serum total and ionized magnesium, serum albumin, and magnesium in mononuclear blood cells and erythrocytes were measured and the APACHE II score and 1-month mortality recorded. Of all patients, 51.3% had a serum total magnesium concentration below the reference range. In 71% of these hypomagnesemic patients, a normal serum ionized magnesium concentration was measured. None of the patients had an intracellular magnesium concentration below the reference limit. Except for serum total and ionized magnesium, none of the magnesium parameters correlated significantly with each other. A significantly negative correlation was found between serum albumin and the fraction ionized magnesium. There was no association between low extracellular or intracellular magnesium and clinical outcome. The observation of hypomagnesemia in critically ill patients depends on which magnesium fraction is measured. The lack of correlation with clinical outcome suggests hypomagnesemia to be merely an epiphenomenon. Reliable concentrations of serum ionized magnesium can be obtained only by direct measurement and not by calculation from serum total magnesium and albumin.