Symptoms to Diagnosis

A patient with altered mental status and an acid-base disturbance

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A 78-year-old black woman with a history of osteoarthrosis and chronic diffuse joint pain presents with altered mental status and tachypnea, which began 3 hours earlier. She lives alone, and her family suspects she abuses both alcohol and her pain medications. She has not been eating well and has lost approximately 10 pounds over the past 3 months. Her analgesic regimen includes acetaminophen and acetaminophen-oxycodone.

In the emergency department her temperature is 98.6°F (37.0°C), pulse 100 beats per minute and regular, respiratory rate 22 per minute, and blood pressure 136/98 mm Hg. She is obtunded but has no focal neurologic defects or meningismus. She has no signs of heart failure (jugular venous distention, cardiomegaly, or gallops), and examination of the lungs and abdomen is unremarkable.

Suspecting that the patient may have taken too much oxycodone, the physician gives her naloxone, but her mental status does not improve. Results of chest radiography and cranial computed tomography are unremarkable. The physician’s initial impression is that the patient has “metabolic encephalopathy of unknown etiology.”

The patient’s laboratory values are shown in Table 1.


1. Which acid-base disorder does this patient have?

  • Metabolic acidosis and respiratory alkalosis
  • Metabolic acidosis and respiratory acidosis
  • Metabolic acidosis with an elevated anion gap
  • A triple disturbance: metabolic acidosis, respiratory acidosis, and metabolic alkalosis

A 5-step approach

Acid-base disorders can be diagnosed and characterized using a systematic approach known as the “Rules of 5” (Table 2)1:

1. Determine the arterial pH status.

2. Determine whether the primary process is respiratory, metabolic, or both.

3. Calculate the anion gap.

4. Check the degree of compensation (respiratory or metabolic).

5. If the patient has metabolic acidosis with an elevated anion gap, check whether the bicarbonate level has decreased as much as the anion gap has increased (ie, whether there is a delta gap).

Let us apply this approach to the patient described above.

1. What is her pH status?

An arterial pH less than 7.40 is acidemic, whereas a pH higher than 7.44 is alkalemic. (Acidemia and alkalemia refer to the abnormal laboratory value, while acidosis and alkalosis refer to the process causing the abnormal value—a subtle distinction, but worth keeping in mind.)

Caveat. A patient may have a significant acid-base disorder even if the pH is normal. Therefore, even if the pH is normal, one should verify that the partial pressure of carbon dioxide (Pco2), bicarbonate level, and anion gap are normal. If they are not, the patient may have a mixed acid-base disorder such as respiratory acidosis superimposed on metabolic alkalosis.

Our patient’s pH is 7.25, which is in the acidemic range.

2. Is her acidosis respiratory, metabolic, or both?

Respiratory acidosis and alkalosis affect the Pco2. The Pco2 is high in respiratory acidosis (due to failure to get rid of excess carbon dioxide), whereas it is low in respiratory alkalosis (due to loss of too much carbon dioxide through hyperventilation).

Metabolic acidosis and alkalosis, on the other hand, affect the serum bicarbonate level. In metabolic acidosis the bicarbonate level is low, whereas in metabolic alkalosis the bicarbonate level is high.

Moreover, in mixed respiratory and metabolic acidosis, the bicarbonate level can be low and the Pco2 can be high. In mixed metabolic and respiratory alkalosis, the bicarbonate level can be high and the Pco2 can be low (Table 2).

Our patient’s serum bicarbonate level is low at 16.0 mmol/L, indicating that the process is metabolic. Her Pco2 is also low (28 mm Hg), which reflects an appropriate response to compensate for the acidosis.

3. What is her anion gap?

Always calculate the anion gap, ie, the serum sodium concentration minus the serum chloride and serum bicarbonate concentrations. If the patient’s serum albumin level is low, for every 1 gram it is below normal, an additional 2.5 mmol/L should be added to the calculated anion gap. We consider an anion gap of 10 mmol/L or less as normal.

Caveats. The blood sample used to calculate the anion gap should be drawn close in time to the arterial blood gas sample.

Although the anion gap is an effective tool in assessing acid-base disorders, further investigation is warranted if clinical judgment suggests that an anion gap calculation is inconsistent with the patient’s circumstances.2

Our patient’s anion gap is elevated (21 mmol/L). Her serum albumin level is in the normal range, so her anion gap does not need to be adjusted.

4. Is the degree of compensation appropriate for the primary acid-base disturbance?

The kidneys compensate for the lungs, and vice versa. That is, in respiratory acidosis or alkalosis, the kidneys adjust the bicarbonate levels, and in metabolic acidosis, the lungs adjust the Pco2 (although in metabolic alkalosis, it is hard for patients to breathe less, especially if they are already hypoxic).

In metabolic acidosis, people compensate by breathing harder to get rid of more carbon dioxide. For every 1-mmol/L decrease in the bicarbonate level, the Pco2 should decrease by 1.3 mm Hg.

Compensation does not return pH to normal; rather, it mitigates the impact of an acid or alkali excess or deficit. If the pH is normalized with an underlying acid-base disturbance, there may be mixed acid-base processes rather than compensation.

Our patient’s bicarbonate level is 16 mmol/L, which is 9 mmol/L lower than normal (for acid-base calculations, we use 25 mmol/L as the nominal normal level). If she is compensating appropriately, her Pco2 should decline from 40 mm Hg (the nominal normal level) by about 11.7 mm Hg (9 × 1.3), to approximately 28.3 mm Hg. Her Pco2 is, indeed, 28 mm Hg, indicating that she is compensating adequately for her metabolic acidosis.

If we use Winter’s formula instead (Pco2 = [1.5 × the bicarbonate level] + 8 ± 2),3 the lowest calculated Pco2 would be 30 mm Hg, which is within 2 mm Hg of the Rules of 5 calculation. Other formulas for calculating compensation are available.3

This information rules out the first two answers to question 1, ie, metabolic acidosis with respiratory alkalosis or acidosis.

5. Is there a delta gap?

Although we know the patient has metabolic acidosis with an elevated anion gap, we have not ruled out the possibility that she may have a triple disturbance. For this reason we need to check her delta gap.

In metabolic acidosis with an elevated anion gap, as the bicarbonate level decreases, the anion gap should increase by the same amount. If the bicarbonate level decreases more than the anion gap increases, the additional decline is the result of a second process—an additional normal-anion-gap acidosis. If the bicarbonate level does not decrease as much as the anion gap increases, there is an additional metabolic alkalosis.

Our patient’s bicarbonate level decreased 9 mmol/L (from the nominal normal level of 25 to 16), and therefore her anion gap should have increased approximately the same amount—and it did. (A normal anion gap for problem-solving is 10, and this patient’s anion gap has increased to 21. A difference of ± 2 is insignificant.) This conclusion verifies that a triple acid-base disturbance is not present, so the last answer is incorrect.

So, the correct answer to the question posed above is metabolic acidosis with an elevated anion gap (that is, metabolic acidosis with appropriate respiratory compensation).

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