Primer on clinical acid-base problem solving

Dis Mon. 2004 Mar;50(3):122-62. doi: 10.1016/j.disamonth.2004.01.002.


Acid-base problem solving has been an integral part of medical practice in recent generations. Diseases discovered in the last 30-plus years, for example, Bartter syndrome and Gitelman syndrome, D-lactic acidosis, and bulimia nervosa, can be diagnosed according to characteristic acid-base findings. Accuracy in acid-base problem solving is a direct result of a reproducible, systematic approach to arterial pH, partial pressure of carbon dioxide, bicarbonate concentration, and electrolytes. The 'Rules of Five' is one tool that enables clinicians to determine the cause of simple and complex disorders, even triple acid-base disturbances, with consistency. In addition, other electrolyte abnormalities that accompany acid-base disorders, such as hypokalemia, can be incorporated into algorithms that complement the Rules and contribute to efficient problem solving in a wide variety of diseases. Recently urine electrolytes have also assisted clinicians in further characterizing select disturbances. Acid-base patterns, in many ways, can serve as a 'common diagnostic pathway' shared by all subspecialties in medicine. From infectious disease (eg, lactic acidemia with highly active antiviral therapy therapy) through endocrinology (eg, Conn's syndrome, high urine chloride alkalemia) to the interface between primary care and psychiatry (eg, bulimia nervosa with multiple potential acid-base disturbances), acid-base problem solving is the key to unlocking otherwise unrelated diagnoses. Inasmuch as the Rules are clinical tools, they are applied throughout this monograph to diverse pathologic conditions typical in contemporary practice.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acid-Base Equilibrium / physiology
  • Acid-Base Imbalance / diagnosis*
  • Acid-Base Imbalance / metabolism*
  • Confusion / metabolism
  • Feeding and Eating Disorders / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Hypokalemia / metabolism
  • Potassium / metabolism
  • Psychomotor Agitation / metabolism


  • Potassium