Acute cardiorenal syndrome: Mechanisms and clinical implications

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How venous congestion impairs the kidney

In view of the current clinical evidence, the focus has shifted to renal venous congestion. According to Poiseuille’s law, blood flow through the kidneys depends on the pressure gradient—high pressure on the arterial side, low pressure on the venous side.8 Increased renal venous pressure causes reduced renal perfusion pressure, thereby affecting renal perfusion. This is now recognized as an important hemodynamic mechanism of acute cardiorenal syndrome.

Renal congestion can also affect renal function through indirect mechanisms. For example, it can cause renal interstitial edema that may then increase the intratubular pressure, thereby reducing the transglomerular pressure gradient.11

Figure 1. Hemodynamic derangements in acute cardiorenal and renocardiac syndromes.

Figure 1. Hemodynamic derangements in acute cardiorenal and renocardiac syndromes. Hypervolemia plays a central role. Dashed arrows indicate noncritical pathways.

Other important manifestations of systemic congestion are splanchnic and intestinal congestion, which may lead to intestinal edema and less often to ascites. This leads to increased intra-abdominal pressure, which can further compromise renal function by compressing the renal veins and ureters.12,13 Systemic decongestion and paracentesis may help alleviate this (Figure 1).

Firth et al,14 in experiments in animals, found that increasing the renal venous pressure above 18.75 mm Hg significantly reduced the glomerular filtration rate, which completely resolved when renal venous pressure was restored to basal levels.

Mullens et al,15 in a study of 145 patients admitted with acute heart failure, reported that 58 (40%) developed acute kidney injury. Pulmonary artery catheterization revealed that elevated central venous pressure, rather than reduced cardiac index, was the primary hemodynamic factor driving renal dysfunction.


Patients with acute cardiorenal syndrome present with clinical features of pulmonary or systemic congestion (or both) and acute kidney injury.

Elevated left-sided pressures are usually but not always associated with elevated right-sided pressures. In a study of 1,000 patients with advanced heart failure, a pulmonary capillary wedge pressure of 22 mm Hg or higher had a positive predictive value of 88% for a right atrial pressure of 10 mm Hg or higher.16 Hence, the clinical presentation may vary depending on the location (pulmonary, systemic, or both) and degree of congestion.

Symptoms of pulmonary congestion include worsening exertional dyspnea and orthopnea; bilateral crackles may be heard on physical examination if pulmonary edema is present.

Systemic congestion can cause significant peripheral edema and weight gain. Jugular venous distention may be noted. Oliguria may be present due to renal dysfunction; patients on maintenance diuretic therapy often note its lack of efficacy.

Signs of acute heart failure

Wang et al,17 in a meta-analysis of 22 studies, concluded that the features that most strongly suggested acute heart failure were:

  • History of paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea
  • A third heart sound
  • Evidence of pulmonary venous congestion on chest radiography.

Features that most strongly suggested the patient did not have acute heart failure were:

  • Absence of exertional dyspnea
  • Absence of rales
  • Absence of radiographic evidence of cardiomegaly.

Patients may present without some of these classic clinical features, and the diagnosis of acute heart failure may be challenging. For example, even if left-sided pressures are very high, pulmonary edema may be absent because of pulmonary vascular remodeling in chronic heart failure.18 Pulmonary artery catheterization reveals elevated cardiac filling pressures and can be used to guide therapy, but clinical evidence argues against its routine use.19

Urine electrolytes (fractional excretion of sodium < 1% and fractional excretion of urea < 35%) often suggest a prerenal form of acute kidney injury, since the hemodynamic derangements in acute cardiorenal syndrome reduce renal perfusion.

Biomarkers of cell-cycle arrest such as urine insulinlike growth factor-binding protein 7 and tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinase 2 have recently been shown to identify patients with acute heart failure at risk of developing acute cardiorenal syndrome.20

Acute cardiorenal syndrome vs renal injury due to hypovolemia

The major alternative in the differential diagnosis of acute cardiorenal syndrome is renal injury due to hypovolemia. Patients with stable heart failure usually have mild hypervolemia at baseline, but they can become hypovolemic due to overaggressive diuretic therapy, severe diarrhea, or other causes.

Although the fluid status of patients in these 2 conditions is opposite, they can be difficult to distinguish. In both conditions, urine electrolytes suggest a prerenal acute kidney injury. A history of recent fluid losses or diuretic overuse may help identify hypovolemia. If available, analysis of the recent trend in weight can be vital in making the right diagnosis.

Misdiagnosis of acute cardiorenal syndrome as hypovolemia-induced acute kidney injury can be catastrophic. If volume depletion is erroneously judged to be the cause of acute kidney injury, fluid administration can further worsen both cardiac and renal function. This can perpetuate the vicious circle that is already in play. Lack of renal recovery may invite further fluid administration.

Next Article:

Hemodynamically, the kidney is at the heart of cardiorenal syndrome

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