Treatment of Hyponatremic Encephalopathy in the Critically Ill

Crit Care Med. 2017 Oct;45(10):1762-1771. doi: 10.1097/CCM.0000000000002595.


Objectives: Hyponatremic encephalopathy, symptomatic cerebral edema due to a low osmolar state, is a medical emergency and often encountered in the ICU setting. This article provides a critical appraisal and review of the literature on identification of high-risk patients and the treatment of this life-threatening disorder.

Data sources, study selection, and data extraction: Online search of the PubMed database and manual review of articles involving risk factors for hyponatremic encephalopathy and treatment of hyponatremic encephalopathy in critical illness.

Data synthesis: Hyponatremic encephalopathy is a frequently encountered problem in the ICU. Prompt recognition of hyponatremic encephalopathy and early treatment with hypertonic saline are critical for successful outcomes. Manifestations are varied, depending on the extent of CNS's adaptation to the hypoosmolar state. The absolute change in serum sodium alone is a poor predictor of clinical symptoms. However, certain patient specific risks factors are predictive of a poor outcome and are important to identify. Gender (premenopausal and postmenopausal females), age (prepubertal children), and the presence of hypoxia are the three main clinical risk factors and are more predictive of poor outcomes than the rate of development of hyponatremia or the absolute decrease in the serum sodium.

Conclusions: In patients with hyponatremic encephalopathy exhibiting neurologic manifestations, a bolus of 100 mL of 3% saline, given over 10 minutes, should be promptly administered. The goal of this initial bolus is to quickly treat cerebral edema. If signs persist, the bolus should be repeated in order to achieve clinical remission. However, the total change in serum sodium should not exceed 5 mEq/L in the initial 1-2 hours and 15-20 mEq/L in the first 48 hours of treatment. It has recently been demonstrated in a prospective fashion that 500 mL of 3% saline at an infusion rate of 100 mL per hour can be given safely. It is critical to recognize the early signs of cerebral edema (nausea, vomiting, and headache) and intervene with IV 3% sodium chloride as this is the time to intervene rather than waiting until more severe symptoms develop. Cerebral demyelination is a rare complication of overly rapid correction of hyponatremia. The principal risk factors for cerebral demyelination are correction of the serum sodium more than 25 mEq/L in the first 48 hours of therapy, correction past the point of 140 mEq/L, chronic liver disease, and hypoxic/anoxic episode.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Brain Diseases, Metabolic / etiology*
  • Brain Diseases, Metabolic / therapy*
  • Brain Edema / etiology
  • Brain Edema / prevention & control
  • Critical Illness*
  • Demyelinating Diseases / etiology
  • Demyelinating Diseases / prevention & control
  • Drug Administration Schedule
  • Humans
  • Hyponatremia / complications*
  • Hypoxia / complications
  • Risk Factors
  • Saline Solution, Hypertonic / therapeutic use*
  • Sex Factors


  • Saline Solution, Hypertonic