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Life-threatening hypokalemia following rapid correction of respiratory acidosis

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Published:25th Mar 2020

A 56-year-old woman with a history of paraplegia and chronic pain due to neuromyelitis optica (Devic's syndrome) was admitted to a spinal cord injury unit for management of a sacral decubitus ulcer. During the hospitalization, she required emergency transfer to the intensive care unit (ICU) because of progressive deterioration of respiratory muscle function, severe respiratory acidosis, obtundation and hypotension.

Upon transfer to the ICU, arterial blood gas revealed severe acute-on-chronic respiratory acidosis (pH 7.00, PCO2 120 mm Hg, PO2 211 mm Hg). The patient was immediately intubated and mechanically ventilated. Intravenous fluid boluses of normal saline (10.5 L in about 24 h) and vasopressors were started with rapid correction of hypotension. In addition, she was given hydrocortisone. Within 40 min of initiation of mechanical ventilation, there was improvement in acute respiratory acidosis. Sixteen hours later, however, the patient developed life-threatening hypokalemia (K+ of 2.1 mEq/L) and hypomagnesemia (Mg of 1.4 mg/dL). Despite aggressive potassium supplementation, hypokalemia continued to worsen over the next several hours (K+ of 1.7 mEq/L). Urine studies revealed renal potassium wasting. We reason that the recalcitrant life-threatening hypokalemia was caused by several mechanisms including total body potassium depletion (chronic respiratory acidosis), a shift of potassium from the extracellular to intracellular space (rapid correction of respiratory acidosis with mechanical ventilation), increased sodium delivery to the distal nephron (normal saline resuscitation), hyperaldosteronism (secondary to hypotension plus administration of hydrocortisone) and hypomagnesemia. We conclude that rapid correction of respiratory acidosis, especially in the setting of hypotension, can lead to life-threatening hypokalemia. Serum potassium levels must be monitored closely in these patients, as failure to do so can lead to potentially lethal consequences.


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