Idiopathic Hypokalemia in Lupus Nephritis: A Newly Recognized Entity

Kidney360. 2021 Aug 6;2(10):1553-1559. doi: 10.34067/KID.0004352021. eCollection 2021 Oct 28.


Background: Various causes of hypokalemia (HK) from renal potassium wasting, including distal renal tubular acidosis (RTA), have been described in lupus nephritis (LN). We report a phenomenon of otherwise unexplained HK among a population with LN.

Methods: From our population of 403 patients with LN, we identified a cohort of 20 patients with idiopathic HK, defined by serum potassium <3.5 mmol/L without any apparent explanation. This cohort is compared with 90 LN controls (CON) and ten patients with LN with distal RTA from the same population.

Results: The patients with HK had lower median serum potassium compared with CON and RTA subjects (3.26 versus 4.00 versus 3.75 mmol/L, respectively; P<0.001). The median serum bicarbonate was normal in HK and CON, but low in RTA (26.0 versus 25.0 versus 19.4 mmol/L; P<0.001). The median urine pH was abnormally high only in the RTA group (6.00 versus 6.25 versus 6.67; P=0.012). The median serum magnesium was modestly lower in HK compared with the CON and RTA groups (1.73 versus 2.00 versus 1.85 mg/dl; P=0.002). Although both HK and RTA showed a higher rate of seropositivity than CON for anti-Ro/SSA (79% and 80% versus 37%, respectively; P<0.001), only HK revealed a higher rate of seropositivity than CON for anti-RNP (84% versus 42%; P=0.003) and only RTA showed a higher rate of seropositivity than CON for anti-La/SSB (40% versus 12%; P=0.05).

Conclusions: A syndrome of idiopathic HK was revealed in 20 out of 403 (5%) of patients within our LN population, and proved to be distinct from the RTA that occurs in LN. Furthermore, it was associated with a distinct pattern of autoantibodies. We speculate that idiopathic HK is the result of a novel target of autoimmunity in LN, affecting renal tubular potassium transport.

Keywords: acid/base and electrolyte disorders; autoantibody; hypokalemia; lupus nephritis; renal tubular acidosis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acidosis, Renal Tubular* / complications
  • Bicarbonates
  • Humans
  • Hypokalemia* / etiology
  • Lupus Nephritis* / complications
  • Potassium


  • Bicarbonates
  • Potassium