Principles of electrolyte disturbance


Serum electrolytes concentrations are usually maintained within a narrow range by complex renal and endocrine homeostatic mechanisms.

Endocrine and renal systems finely tune absorption, distribution and excretion of electrolytes.

Derangements occur when there are

  1. Primary impairments in renal/endocrine homeostatic mechanisms
  2. Marked changes in intake, excretion or body compartment shifts which cannot be compensated
  3. Drug/Toxic effects that influence the above

Deficits are due to:

Excesses are due to

In addition:

For predominantly extracellular electrolytes e.g.  Na, serum concentration is a function of total body electrolyte content and total body water content. 

Therefore, low sodium concentration may be due to either inadequate sodium or excess water

Clinical symptoms

The degree of symptoms are both a function of the severity of derangement and the rapidity of onset

e.g. chronic renal failure patients can tolerate higher serum potassium levels

see Clinically significant electrolyte disturbances


Serious complications are associated with impairment of:

Respiratory function

Cardiac function

Brain function


NB rapidly treating electrolyte disturbances can also cause complications! In non-life threatening disturbances, slow correction over 48 hours is recommended.