Therapeutic recommendations for management of severe hyponatremia: current concepts on pathogenesis and prevention of neurologic complications

Clin Nephrol. 1996 Sep;46(3):149-69.


Patients with hyponatremia are exposed to major neurological complications. On the one hand hyponatremia itself produces brain edema, increased intracranial pressure which potentially leads to subsequent neuropathological sequelae or death. On the other hand excessive correction could be followed by development of brain demyelinating lesions (central pontine or extrapontine myelinolysis) with major disability or fatal outcome. Understanding of brain adaptative mechanisms to changes in osmolality largely contributes to explain these neurological events. When serum sodium decreases, the brain prevents swelling by extruding electrolytes and organic osmolytes, a process almost fully achieved after 48 h. Conversely, during subsequent increase in serum sodium, reestablishment of intracerebral osmolytes occurs but their reuptake is more delayed (+/- 5 days). In both circumstances, these mechanisms can be overwhelmed, leading to brain damage. Acute hyponatremia (< 48 h) is generally hospital-acquired, mainly in the postoperative state and/or after excessive fluid administration. After abrupt fall in serum sodium, seizure, respiratory arrest and coma may develop and these manifestations are sometimes explosive in nature. Recognition of even minor symptoms is crucial and implies prompt correction. There is generally no risk of brain myelinolysis in acute hyponatremia. Some factors are suspected to aggravate the prognosis of hyponatremic encephalopathy, including female gender (menstruant women), hypoxia and young age. Chronic hyponatremia (> 48 h) usually develops outside the hospital and is generally better tolerated. The risks of brain myelinolysis can be largely reduced by limiting the correction level to < or = 15 mEq/1/24 h. However, if necessary, the initial rate of correction can be rapid provided that the final correction remains < 15 mEq/1/24 h. However, when other recognized risk factors for myelinolysis (hypokalemia, liver disease, poor nutritional state, burns) are present, correction should not exceed 10 mEq/1/24 h. Demyelinization is also observed in hypernatremia but it follows greater (50%) increase in serum sodium than from hyponatremic baseline. For symptomatic hyponatremia, rapid correction is usually obtained by hypertonic saline (3%) infusion. Another option consists in administration of intravenous or oral urea. Urea allows a rapid reduction of brain edema and intracranial pressure which is followed by subsequent correction of hyponatremia. Experimental data also suggest that treatment of hyponatremia with urea is associated with a lower incidence of myelinolysis. In hyponatremic patients without symptoms, there is no need for rapid correction and the treatment should be more conservative. Close monitoring of the serum sodium is indicated initially and if necessary, correction must be stopped and diuresis interrupted with dDAVP. Given recent experimental data, in patients overly corrected (delta SNa > 15 mEq/1/24 h), the risk of myelinolysis could be greatly reduced by rapidly decreasing the serum sodium through hypotonic fluids administration and dDAVP.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Central Nervous System Diseases / etiology
  • Central Nervous System Diseases / prevention & control*
  • Demyelinating Diseases / etiology
  • Demyelinating Diseases / prevention & control*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hyponatremia* / complications
  • Hyponatremia* / etiology
  • Hyponatremia* / therapy
  • Inappropriate ADH Syndrome / therapy
  • Male