Disturbances of sodium concentration [Na+] result in most cases from abnormalities of H2O homeostasis, which change the relative ratio of Na+ to H2O. Disorders of Na+ balance per se are, in contrast, associated with changes in extracellular fluid volume, either hypo- or hypervolemia. Maintenance of “arterial circulatory integrity” is achieved in large part by changes in urinary sodium excretion and vascular tone, whereas H2O balance is achieved by changes in both H2O intake and urinary H2O excretion (Table 1-1). Confusion can result from the coexistence of defects in both H2O and Na+ balance. For example, a hypovolemic pt may have an appropriately low urinary Na+ due to increased renal tubular reabsorption of filtered NaCl; a concomitant increase in circulating arginine vasopressin (AVP)—part of the defense of effective circulating volume (Table 1-1)—will cause the renal retention of ingested H2O and the development of hyponatremia.

TABLE 1-1: Osmoregulation versus Volume Regulation
What is sensedPlasma osmolalityArterial filling
SensorsHypothalamic osmoreceptors

Carotid sinus

Afferent arteriole


EffectorsAVPSympathetic nervous system
 ThirstRenin-angiotensin-aldosterone system
What is affectedUrine osmolalityUrinary sodium excretion
 H2O intakeVascular tone
Note: See text for details.
Abbreviations: ANP, atrial natriuretic peptide; AVP, arginine vasopressin; BNP, brain natriuretic peptide.
Source: Adapted from Rose BD, Black RM (eds): Manual of Clinical Problems in Nephrology. Boston, Little Brown, 1988.



Because potassium (K+) is the major intracellular cation, discussion of disorders of K+ balance must take into consideration changes in the exchange of intra- and extracellular K+ stores. (Extracellular K+ constitutes <2% of total-body K+ content.) Insulin, β2-adrenergic agonists, and alkalosis tend to promote K+ uptake by cells; acidosis, insulinopenia, or acute hyperosmolality (e.g., after treatment with mannitol or D50W) promotes the efflux or reduced uptake of K+. A corollary is that tissue necrosis and the attendant release of K+ can cause severe hyperkalemia, particularly in the setting of acute kidney injury. Hyperkalemia due to rhabdomyolysis is thus particularly common, due to the enormous store of K+ in muscle; hyperkalemia may also be prominent in tumor lysis syndrome.

The kidney plays a dominant role in K+ excretion. Although K+ is transported along the entire nephron, it is the principal cells of the connecting segment and cortical collecting duct that play a dominant role in K+ excretion. Apical Na+ entry into principal cells via the amiloride-sensitive ENaC generates a lumen-negative potential difference, which drives passive K+ exit through apical K+ channels. This relationship is key to the bedside understanding of potassium disorders. For example, decreased distal delivery of Na+ tends to blunt the ability to excrete K+, leading to hyperkalemia. Abnormalities in the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system (RAAS) can cause both hypo- and hyperkalemia; aldosterone has a major influence on potassium excretion, increasing the activity of ENaC channels and the basolateral Na+/K+-ATPase, thus amplifying the driving force for K+ secretion across the luminal membrane of principal cells.