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Acute Tubular Necrosis Differential Diagnoses

  • Author: Edgar V Lerma, MD, FACP, FASN, FAHA, FASH, FNLA, FNKF; Chief Editor: Vecihi Batuman, MD, FACP, FASN  more...
Updated: Dec 21, 2015

Diagnostic Considerations

The diagnosis of acute tubular necrosis (ATN) is made on a clinical basis, that is, with the help of a detailed and accurate history, a thorough physical examination, and pertinent laboratory examinations and imaging studies.

Ischemic ATN may be considered part of the spectrum of prerenal azotemia, and indeed, ischemic ATN and prerenal azotemia have the same causes and risk factors (see Etiology). Urinalysis and urine electrolytes can be used to differentiate the 2 disorders (see Workup).

Renal vasculitis must be quickly differentiated from ATN. In patients with clinical and urinary findings suggesting renal vasculitis (eg, acute onset of rash, arthralgias, hypertension, proteinuria, microscopic hematuria), the diagnosis needs to be established quickly, with renal biopsy, so that appropriate immunomodulatory therapy can be initiated.

In a multicenter, prospective cohort study of 102 patients with cirrhosis and acute kidney injury (AKI), Belcher and colleagues assessed multiple urinary biomarkers used to determine the three most common etiologies of AKI: ATN, prerenal azotemia, and hepatorenal syndrome (HRS). Median values of the following biomarkers were significantly higher in patient with ATN[7] :

  • Neutrophil gelatinase-associated lipocalin (NGAL)
  • Interleukin-18 (IL-18)
  • Kidney injury molecule-1 (KIM-1)
  • Liver-type fatty acid binding protein (L-FABP)
  • Albumin

The likelihood of being diagnosed with ATN increased stepwise with the number of biomarkers above optimal diagnostic cutoffs.

Also see Nephritis, Interstitial and Acute Obstructive Uropathy Imaging.

Differential Diagnoses

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Edgar V Lerma, MD, FACP, FASN, FAHA, FASH, FNLA, FNKF Clinical Professor of Medicine, Section of Nephrology, Department of Medicine, University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine; Research Director, Internal Medicine Training Program, Advocate Christ Medical Center; Consulting Staff, Associates in Nephrology, SC

Edgar V Lerma, MD, FACP, FASN, FAHA, FASH, FNLA, FNKF is a member of the following medical societies: American Heart Association, American Medical Association, American Society of Hypertension, American Society of Nephrology, Chicago Medical Society, Illinois State Medical Society, National Kidney Foundation, Society of General Internal Medicine

Disclosure: Serve(d) as a speaker or a member of a speakers bureau for: Otsuka, Mallinckrodt, ZS Pharma<br/>Author for: UpToDate, ACP Smart Medicine.


Mahendra Agraharkar, MD, MBBS, FACP FASN, Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine, Baylor College of Medicine; President and CEO, Space City Associates of Nephrology

Mahendra Agraharkar, MD, MBBS, FACP is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Physicians, American Society of Nephrology, National Kidney Foundation

Disclosure: Received ownership interest/medical directorship from South Shore DaVita Dialysis Center for other; Received ownership/medical directorship from Space City Dialysis /American Renal Associates for same; Received ownership interest from US Renal Care for other.

Brent Kelly, MD Assistant Professor, Department of Dermatology, University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, Texas

Brent Kelly, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Vecihi Batuman, MD, FACP, FASN Huberwald Professor of Medicine, Section of Nephrology-Hypertension, Tulane University School of Medicine; Chief, Renal Section, Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System

Vecihi Batuman, MD, FACP, FASN is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Physicians, American Society of Hypertension, American Society of Nephrology, International Society of Nephrology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


George R Aronoff, MD Director, Professor, Departments of Internal Medicine and Pharmacology, Section of Nephrology, Kidney Disease Program, University of Louisville School of Medicine

George R Aronoff, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Federation for Medical Research, American Society of Nephrology, Kentucky Medical Association, and National Kidney Foundation

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

F John Gennari, MD Associate Chair for Academic Affairs, Robert F and Genevieve B Patrick Professor, Department of Medicine, University of Vermont College of Medicine

F John Gennari, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American College of Physicians-American Society of Internal Medicine, American Federation for Medical Research, American Heart Association, American Physiological Society, American Society for Clinical Investigation, American Society of Nephrology, and International Society of Nephrology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Medscape Salary Employment

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A photomicrograph of renal biopsy shows renal medulla, which is composed mainly of renal tubules. Patchy or diffuse denudation of the renal tubular cells is observed, suggesting acute tubular necrosis (ATN) as the cause of acute kidney injury (AKI).
Acute tubular necrosis (ATN). Flattening of the renal tubule cells due to tubular dilation.
Acute tubular necrosis. Intratubular cast formation.
Acute tubular necrosis. Intratubular obstruction due to the denuded epithelium and cellular debris. Note that the denuded tubular epithelial cells clump together due to rearrangement of intercellular adhesion molecules (ICAM).
Sloughing of cells, which is responsible for the formation of granular casts, a feature of acute tubular necrosis (ATN).
Table. Laboratory Findings Used to Differentiate Prerenal Azotemia From ATN
Finding Prerenal Azotemia ATN and/or Intrinsic Renal Disease
Urine osmolarity


>500 < 350
Urine sodium


< 20 >40
Fractional excretion of sodium (FENa)


< 1 >2
Fractional excretion of urea


< 35 >50
Urine sediment Bland and/or nonspecific May show muddy brown granular casts
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