Urine electrolytes and osmolality: when and how to use them

Am J Nephrol. 1990;10(2):89-102. doi: 10.1159/000168062.


The purpose of this review is to provide an update on the use of the urine electrolyte and osmolality measurements in patients with disorders of fluid, electrolytes, and/or acid-base metabolism. It is critical to appreciate that there are no 'normal values' for these parameters, only 'expected values' relative to clinical situations. Pitfalls in the interpretation of each electrolyte in the urine are also provided. To detect a mild to moderate degree of reduction of the 'effective' intravascular volume, both urine sodium (Na) and chloride (Cl) concentrations should be measured. Pitfalls in this assessment are abnormal renal and adrenal function and the use of diuretics. Insights into the etiology of the low 'effective' intravascular volume can be deduced by comparing the urine Na, potassium (K), and Cl concentrations. The urine net charge (Cl vs. Na + K) is the most reliable way to estimate the urine ammonium concentration short of its direct measurement, an assay that is not provided by most laboratories. This measurement is important in the differential diagnosis of hyperchloremic metabolic acidosis. To examine the renal response to hypokalemia or hyperkalemia, the two components of K excretion (K secretion and urine flow rate) should be examined separately. The former is evaluated using the transtubular K, concentration gradient. The urine osmolality is used to assess antidiuretic hormone action and the osmolality of the renal medulla and to determine the etiology of polyuria and/or hypernatremia. The urine osmolality can also be used to assess the ammonium concentration, using the urine osmolal gap, and to detect unusual urine osmoles.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acid-Base Imbalance / diagnosis
  • Chlorides / urine
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Electrolytes / urine*
  • Humans
  • Osmolar Concentration
  • Potassium / urine
  • Sodium / urine
  • Water-Electrolyte Imbalance / diagnosis


  • Chlorides
  • Electrolytes
  • Sodium
  • Potassium