Life-threatening hypokalaemia associated with ibuprofen-induced renal tubular acidosis

Jennifer L Ng, David J R Morgan, Nelson K M Loh, Seng K Gan, Patrick L Coleman, Gregory S Y Ong and David Prentice
Med J Aust 2011; 194 (6): 313-316. || doi: 10.5694/j.1326-5377.2011.tb02982.x
Published online: 21 March 2011

Renal tubular acidosis is an underreported complication of ibuprofen misuse, and can result in life-threatening hypokalaemia. We describe four patients who presented with profound hypokalaemia and muscle weakness associated with excessive ibuprofen ingestion. Ibuprofen cessation and supportive management resulted in complete biochemical resolution within a few days. These cases remind practitioners about potential complications of unmonitored use of over-the-counter analgesics, including those with potential for misuse due to their codeine content. (MJA 2011; 194: 313-316)

Clinical records
Patient 1

A 32-year-old woman presented to the emergency department with a 2-day history of evolving paralysis associated with profound hypokalaemia (potassium, 1 mmol/L; reference range [RR], 3–5 mmol/L). She also had epigastric pain without diarrhoea or vomiting and a past medical history of depression, iron deficiency anaemia, chronic constipation, migraines, cigarette smoking and previous intravenous drug use. Family history was unremarkable. Her only medications were citalopram 20 mg daily and a combination of ibuprofen (200 mg) and codeine phosphate (12.8 mg) for migraines. She denied taking laxatives, diuretics, alcohol or illicit drugs.

On examination, the patient weighed 38 kg (body mass index, 14 kg/m2), her blood pressure was 90/55 mmHg, and other vital signs were normal. There was generalised flaccid weakness (graded 3/5) with normal sensation. She also had epigastric tenderness.

Results of initial laboratory investigations (Box 1) were consistent with distal renal tubular acidosis (dRTA). An electrocardiogram (ECG) demonstrated features of hypokalaemia, including widespread ST-segment depression and U waves. Endoscopy revealed oesophageal erosions and a benign gastric ulcer. An abdominal computed tomography scan demonstrated enlarged, oedematous kidneys without nephrocalcinosis.

The patient’s husband revealed she had been consuming the combination ibuprofen–codeine over a prolonged period — at least 25 tablets (5.0 g of ibuprofen) per week and up to 20 tablets in 1 day. Ibuprofen toxicity explained both the gastrointestinal symptoms and the biochemical manifestations of dRTA. No alternate explanation for dRTA was found.

The ibuprofen–codeine combination was ceased, and intravenous potassium chloride (KCl) was administered (610 mmol at 5–10 mmol/h over 5 days), with concurrent oral replacement of 64 mmol potassium/day. No signs of opioid withdrawal were detected. Within 5 days, her serum potassium level stabilised at 4 mmol/L and bicarbonate levels normalised without bicarbonate supplementation. She was discharged 3 weeks later on a regimen of 16 mmol of potassium daily; her serum potassium level at discharge was 5 mmol/L.

Patient 4

A 40-year-old man presented with a 2-day history of profound generalised weakness associated with hypokalaemia (potassium, 1 mmol/L). He had consumed 1.4–2.0 g/day of ibuprofen for 3 months for degenerative back pain. There was no history of diarrhoea or vomiting, he took no other medications and had no significant family history, and he was a smoker.

The patient had normal vital signs apart from bradycardia (50 beats/min), with generalised flaccid weakness (graded 1–2/5) with preserved reflexes and sensation. An ECG demonstrated sinus bradycardia with prolonged QTc interval and U waves.

Initial biochemistry results (Box 1) were consistent with RTA. Although the urine pH of 6.5 was higher than expected for the low serum bicarbonate level (11 mmol/L), proximal RTA (pRTA) was diagnosed in view of the negative urine anion gap and findings suggesting proximal tubular dysfunction. These included hypouricaemia (0.18 mmol/L; RR, 0.20–0.42 mmol/L), hypophosphataemia (0.40 mmol/L; RR, 0.8–1.5 mmol/L) and mild proteinuria.

As there were no features suggesting alternative causes for pRTA, ibuprofen was considered the most likely causative factor, and was discontinued. Intravenous potassium (1010 mmol over 3 days at a maximum rate of 20 mmol/h), bicarbonate (total dose, 500 mmol) and phosphate (total dose, 50 mmol) were administered under electrocardiographic monitoring. The patient’s muscle strength improved within 24 hours and he was discharged 4 days later with a serum potassium level of 3 mmol/L. Potassium supplementation was ceased on discharge.


Ibuprofen, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), is widely used and readily available over the counter (OTC). Excessive ingestion of ibuprofen, in combination with codeine or alone, can result in ibuprofen toxicity, including RTA. In Australia, the maximum quantity of ibuprofen–codeine available OTC has recently been reduced from 72 to 28 tablets due to problems related to codeine misuse.

We have described four patients with profound hypokalaemia due to ibuprofen-induced RTA. This is an underreported complication, which may present with hypokalaemic paralysis. Three of the patients were admitted to the same tertiary care hospital within 3 months of each other. The remaining patient was admitted to a peripheral hospital the previous year. In each case, the differential diagnosis of hypokalaemia initially included transcellular potassium shift, renal potassium wasting and gastrointestinal losses. Medication histories were uniformly negative for drugs known to cause intracellular potassium movement. Thyroid function was normal and there was no family history of hypokalaemic periodic paralysis. Urinary potassium wasting was documented in all cases by excessive urine potassium excretion (> 20 mmol/day or spot urine potassium > 20 mmol/L) in the presence of hypokalaemia.1 This was not explained by diuretic use or magnesium deficiency. The hyperchloraemic metabolic acidosis and non-acidified urine pH were in keeping with RTA. Gastrointestinal potassium and bicarbonate loss was unlikely in the absence of diarrhoea or laxative use. In two cases, gastric ulceration provided corroborative evidence for ibuprofen toxicity. Investigations found no alternative aetiology for RTA (Box 2). Ibuprofen cessation and supportive therapy allowed complete biochemical resolution within days. Unfortunately, no follow-up information could be obtained to ascertain whether the RTA was recurrent, or whether a previously unrecognised aetiology for RTA had become apparent.

Characteristics of RTA are summarised in Box 3. Renal acidification is impaired, resulting in a hyperchloraemic metabolic acidosis.2 Hypokalaemia due to kaluresis is a feature of both proximal and distal RTA. Multiple factors contribute to hypokalaemia. Metabolic acidosis impairs proximal sodium reabsorption, leading to increased distal sodium delivery, secondary hyperaldosteronism and increased potassium secretion.3 In distal RTA, impaired hydrogen ion excretion promotes potassium loss in exchange for sodium to maintain electroneutrality. Reduced H–K-ATPase pump activity results in reduced distal potassium reabsorption.4

Four previously published case reports5-8 have described similar clinical presentations occurring with ibuprofen use of 4.8 to 28 g per day. However, one of our patients (Patient 4) developed RTA at a dose below the maximum recommended. No other NSAID has yet been implicated with this complication.

The mechanism by which ibuprofen induces RTA is unknown. Other nephrotoxic effects of NSAIDs, including acute and chronic kidney injury, interstitial nephritis and nephrotic syndrome, result from impaired synthesis of cytoprotective prostaglandins, a consequence of cyclo-oxygenase-1 (COX-1) inhibition. It is hypothesised that the pathogenesis of ibuprofen-induced RTA may involve carbonic anhydrase (CA) inhibition. CA catalyses the interconversion between carbon dioxide and bicarbonate and is crucial to renal acid–base regulation. It is present in renal proximal tubules and collecting ducts as well as a variety of other tissues, including bone, brain and gut.9 Congenital CA deficiency is characterised by proximal and distal RTA, osteopetrosis and cerebral calcification.10 High titres of an auto-antibody directed against CA II have been noted in some patients with dRTA associated with Sjögren syndrome.11 Induction of these auto-antibodies has resulted in the development of RTA in a mouse model of Sjögren syndrome.12 Other NSAIDs including aspirin13 and flurbiprofen14 have been shown to have CA-inhibitory activity in vitro. More recently, celecoxib and valdecoxib, which are COX-2 selective NSAIDs, have been demonstrated to be potent inhibitors of CA due to binding of their sulfonamide moiety to its zinc (Zn2+) ion.15 Although ibuprofen lacks a sulfonamide moiety, it can inhibit human and bovine erythrocyte CA II.14 CA inhibition would be consistent with our observations of both proximal and distal RTA.

In conclusion, profound hypokalaemia due to RTA is a potentially fatal complication of ibuprofen use. Although it usually occurs with excessive doses, it can occur at doses below the maximum recommended. The pathogenesis is unknown but may involve CA inhibition. Opioid addiction with deliberate misuse of ibuprofen–codeine analgesics is common.16 Therefore, ibuprofen toxicity should be considered in the differential diagnosis of patients presenting with severe hypokalaemia or hypokalaemic paralysis.

  • Jennifer L Ng1
  • David J R Morgan2
  • Nelson K M Loh1
  • Seng K Gan2,3
  • Patrick L Coleman4
  • Gregory S Y Ong1
  • David Prentice2

  • 1 Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, Perth, WA.
  • 2 Royal Perth Hospital, Perth, WA.
  • 3 University of Western Australia, Perth, WA.
  • 4 Manly Hospital, Sydney, NSW.

Competing interests:

None identified.

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