Assessment of the status of extracellular fluid volume is important in evaluating the cause and selecting appropriate therapy for hyponatremic disorders. Since the sensitivity and specificity of clinical assessment of extracellular fluid volume status in hyponatremic states remain unknown, 58 non-edematous patients with serum sodium less than 130 meq/liter were prospectively evaluated. Patients were judged to be either normovolemic (no response of serum sodium to saline infusion) or hypovolemic (saline infusion significantly corrected hyponatremia). Hypovolemic patients had significantly higher plasma renin activity (5.0 +/- 1.5 versus 2.5 +/- 0.5 ng/ml per three hours, p less than 0.05) and norepinephrine (1,054 +/- 252 versus 519 +/- 55 pg/ml, p less than 0.05) concentrations than did normovolemic patients. Clinical assessment correctly identified only 47 percent of hypovolemic patients and 48 percent of normovolemic patients. Thus, clinical assessment was of limited sensitivity and specificity in identifying extracellular fluid volume status in these hyponatremic patients. However, the concentration of sodium in a spot urine sample clearly separated hypovolemic (mean UNa = 18.4 +/- 3.1 meq/liter) from normovolemic (mean UNa = 72 +/- 3.7 meq/liter, p less than 0.001) hyponatremic patients.