Hospital Consult

Update on Calciphylaxis Etiopathogenesis, Diagnosis, and Management

In partnership with the Society for Dermatology Hospitalists

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Calciphylaxis is a rare painful skin condition classically seen in patients with end-stage renal disease (ESRD), particularly those on chronic dialysis; however, it also has been increasingly reported in patients with normal renal function. Calciphylaxis is associated with high mortality rates, and excruciating pain and nonhealing ulcers often lead to recurrent hospitalizations and infectious complications. It is critical for dermatologists to recognize the clinical features of calciphylaxis to ensure accurate and timely diagnosis and proper management. In this article, we provide an update on calciphylaxis etiopathogenesis, diagnosis, and management, and we highlight the challenges faced in managing this potentially fatal condition.

Practice Points

  • Maintain a high index of suspicion for calciphylaxis in patients with end-stage renal disease on chronic dialysis presenting with severely painful livedoid plaques or retiform purpura, particularly in fat-rich body sites.
  • Skin biopsies may be limited by biopsy site, inadequate biopsy depth, missed areas of microcalcification, and absence of definitive histologic criteria. Special calcium stains and review by an experienced dermatopathologist may lower the rate of false-negative biopsies.
  • In cases where the most likely clinical diagnosis is calciphylaxis, treatment should be initiated even if definitive histopathology findings are lacking.
  • Treatment should be multimodal, including elimination of risk factors, intravenous sodium thiosulfate, agents addressing calcium-phosphate metabolism, and surgical debridement, if indicated.



Calciphylaxis, also known as calcific uremic arteriolopathy, is a painful skin condition classically seen in patients with end-stage renal disease (ESRD), particularly those on chronic dialysis.1,2 It also has increasingly been reported in patients with normal renal function and calcium and phosphate homeostasis.3,4 Effective diagnosis and management of calciphylaxis remains challenging for physicians.2,5 The condition is characterized by tissue ischemia caused by calcification of cutaneous arteriolar vessels. As a result, calciphylaxis is associated with high mortality rates, ranging from 60% to 80%.5,6 Excruciating pain and nonhealing ulcers often lead to recurrent hospitalizations and infectious complications,7 and poor nutritional status, chronic pain, depression, and insomnia can further complicate recovery and lead to poor quality of life.8

We provide an update on calciphylaxis etiopathogenesis, diagnosis, and management. We also highlight some challenges faced in managing this potentially fatal condition.


Calciphylaxis is considered a rare dermatosis with an estimated annual incidence of 1% to 4% in ESRD patients on dialysis. Recent data suggest that incidence of calciphylaxis is rising,5,7,9 which may stem from an increased use of calcium-based phosphate binders, an actual rise in disease incidence, and/or increased recognition of the disease.5 It is difficult to estimate the exact disease burden of calciphylaxis because the diagnostic criteria are not well defined, often leading to missed or delayed diagnosis.3,10 Furthermore, there is no centralized registry for calciphylaxis cases.3

Etiology and Pathogenesis

Calciphylaxis is thought to have a multifactorial etiology with the exact cause or trigger unknown.7 A long list of risk factors and triggers is associated with the condition (Table 1). Calciphylaxis primarily affects small arteries (40–600 μm in diameter) that become calcified due to an imbalance between inhibitors and promoters of calcification.2,11 Fetuin-A and matrix Gla protein inhibit vascular calcification and are downregulated in calciphylaxis.12,13 Dysfunctional calcium, phosphate, and parathyroid hormone regulatory pathways provide an increased substrate for the process of calcification, which causes endothelial damage and microthrombosis, resulting in tissue ischemia and infarction.14,15 Notably, there is growing interest in the role of vitamin K in the pathogenesis of calciphylaxis. Vitamin K inhibits vascular calcification, possibly by increasing the circulating levels of carboxylated matrix Gla protein.16

Clinical Features

Calciphylaxis is most commonly seen on the legs, abdomen, and buttocks.2 Patients with ESRD commonly develop proximal lesions affecting adipose-rich sites and have a poor prognosis. Distal lesions are more common in patients with nonuremic calciphylaxis, and mortality rates are lower in this population.2

Early lesions present as painful skin nodules or indurated plaques that often are rock-hard or firm to palpation with overlying mottling or a livedoid pattern (Figure, A). Early lesions progress from livedo reticularis to livedo racemosa and then to retiform purpura (Figure, B). Purpuric lesions later evolve into black eschars (Figure, C), then to necrotic, ulcerated, malodorous plaques or nodules in later stages of the disease (Figure, D). Lesions also may develop a gangrenous sclerotic appearance.2,5


Early lesions of calciphylaxis often appear as indurated plaques with overlying mottling or livedoid pattern (A) that progress to retiform purpura (B). Purpuric lesions then evolve into black eschars (C). In later stages, necrotic, ulcerated, malodorous plaques or nodules are present (D).

Although most patients with calciphylaxis have ESRD, nonuremic patients also can develop the disease. Those with calciphylaxis who do not have renal dysfunction frequently have other risk factors for the disease and often report another notable health problem in the weeks or months prior to presentation.4 More than half of patients with calciphylaxis become bedridden or require use of a wheelchair.17 Pain is characteristically severe throughout the course of the disease; it may even precede the appearance of the skin lesions.18 Because the pain is associated with ischemia, it tends to be relatively refractory to treatment with opioids. Rare extracutaneous vascular calcifications may lead to visual impairment, gastrointestinal tract bleeding, and myopathy.5,9,19,20


Considering the high morbidity and mortality associated with calciphylaxis, it is important to provide accurate and timely diagnosis; however, there currently are no validated diagnostic criteria for calciphylaxis. Careful correlation of clinical and histologic findings is required. Calciphylaxis biopsies have demonstrated medial calcification and proliferation of the intima of small- to medium-sized arteries.21 Lobular and septal panniculitis and extravascular soft-tissue calcification, particularly stippled calcification of the eccrine sweat glands, also has been seen.2,22 Special calcium stains (eg, von Kossa, Alizarin red) increase the sensitivity of biopsy by highlighting subtle areas of intravascular and extravascular calcification.5,23 Sufficient sampling of subcutaneous tissue and specimen evaluation by an experienced dermatopathologist are necessary to ensure proper interpretation of the histologic findings.

Despite these measures, skin biopsies may be nondiagnostic or falsely negative; therefore, when there is high clinical suspicion, it may be appropriate to move forward with a presumptive diagnosis of calciphylaxis even if the histologic findings are nondiagnostic.1,9,24 It also is worth noting that localized progression and ulceration may occur following skin biopsy, such that biopsy may even be contraindicated in certain cases (eg, penile calciphylaxis).

Standard laboratory workup for calciphylaxis includes evaluation for associated risk factors as well as exclusion of other conditions in the differential diagnosis (Table 2). Blood tests to evaluate for risk factors include liver and renal function tests, a complete metabolic panel, parathyroid hormone level, and serum albumin level.5 Elevated calcium and phosphate levels may signal disturbed calcium and phosphate homeostasis but are neither sensitive nor specific for the diagnosis.25 Complete blood cell count, blood cultures, thorough hypercoagulability workup (including but not limited to antiphospholipid antibodies, proteins C and S, factor V Leiden, antithrombin III, homocysteine, methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase mutation, and cryoglobulins), rheumatoid factor, antineutrophil cytoplasmic antibodies, and antinuclear antibody testing may be relevant to help identify contributing factors or mimickers of calciphylaxis.5 Various imaging modalities also have been used to evaluate for the presence of soft-tissue calcification in areas of suspected calciphylaxis, including radiography, mammography, computed tomography, ultrasonography, nuclear bone scintigraphy, and spectroscopy.2,26,27 Unfortunately, there currently is no standardized reproducible imaging modality for reliable diagnosis of calciphylaxis. Ultimately, histologic and radiographic findings should always be interpreted in the context of relevant clinical findings.2,9


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