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Carnitine Deficiency Clinical Presentation

  • Author: Fernando Scaglia, MD, FACMG; Chief Editor: Maria Descartes, MD  more...
Updated: Feb 19, 2016


Primary carnitine deficiency

One classic initial presentation of primary carnitine deficiency is hypoketotic hypoglycemic encephalopathy, accompanied by hepatomegaly, elevated liver transaminases, and hyperammonemia.

Cardiomyopathy is the other classic presentation (affecting older children); onset may occur with rapidly progressive heart failure. Cardiomyopathy can also be observed in older patients with a metabolic presentation, even if they are asymptomatic from a cardiac standpoint.

Pericardial effusion has also been observed in association with primary carnitine deficiency.[7]

Muscle weakness, the third manifestation of the disease, may accompany the heart failure or present by itself.

Carnitine deficiency may be a cause of GI dysmotility, with recurrent episodes of abdominal pain and diarrhea.

Hypochromic anemia and recurrent infections are other manifestations of the disease.

Few patients who were asymptomatic most of their lives have presented following the birth of a child.

Mild developmental delay can be the only manifestation in rare cases.

Muscle carnitine deficiency

Severe reduction in muscle carnitine levels and normal serum carnitine concentrations characterize muscle carnitine deficiency. This disorder is restricted to muscle, with no renal leak of carnitine or signs of liver involvement.

Symptoms of muscle carnitine deficiency can appear in the first years of life, but they may occur later during the second or third decade. Patients may experience proximal muscular weakness of varying degree, exercise intolerance, or myalgia.

Secondary carnitine deficiency

Breastfed infants may experience a catabolic state shortly after birth, when the production of milk is not adequate to meet nutritional requirements. Acute metabolic decompensation with hypoketotic or nonketotic hypoglycemia usually occurs in infancy, whereas cardiac and skeletal muscle disease manifest later. The episodes of metabolic decompensation, triggered by fasting or common viral illness, consist of altered consciousness that can be complicated by seizures, apnea, or cardiorespiratory arrest. Patients may have a history of failure to thrive, developmental delay, or nonspecific abdominal problems.

Patients with organic acidemias causing secondary carnitine deficiency may present with crises consisting of hypoglycemia, ketoacidosis, and hyperammonemia.

Patients with respiratory chain defects or mitochondrial disorders and secondary carnitine deficiency may present with abnormal fatigability and lactic acidosis associated with exertion. These children also may present with encephalopathy and/or lipid storage myopathy and carnitine depletion. Carnitine deficiency has been observed in children with urea cycle defects, and it may exacerbate episodes of hyperammonemia.

Signs and symptoms related to carnitine deficiency are not completely defined in the newborn. Apnea, cardiac death, and sudden death have been found in infants with carnitine depletion.

Carnitine deficiency can develop in children with renal Fanconi tubulopathy; it may be idiopathic and present with renal tubular acidosis or secondary to acquired or inherited conditions.

Carnitine deficiency may present in children being treated with valproic acid and may be associated with fulminant liver failure and presentation similar to that in Reye syndrome. It also may present with a myopathy and increased lipid storage in patients with AIDS who are being treated with zidovudine.



Primary carnitine deficiency

In primary carnitine deficiency, physical findings may vary depending on the form of presentation.

CNS: If the presentation is encephalopathy caused by hypoketotic hypoglycemia, the patient may present limp, unresponsive, and comatose after a prolonged fast. Pyramidal movements or minimal athetoid movements can persist after this type of presentation. Modest hepatomegaly also can be appreciated.

Skeletal muscle: In the myopathic presentation, patients may have mild motor delays, hypotonia, or progressive proximal weakness.

Cardiac muscle: Patients with primary carnitine deficiency may present with cardiomyopathy. Onset may occur with rapidly progressive heart failure or murmur. Cardiomegaly may be found on the physical examination, associated with the presence of a heart murmur. A gallop rhythm can be found, associated with a dilated cardiomyopathy.[8]

Respiratory symptoms are associated with heart failure.

Muscle carnitine deficiency

Muscle carnitine deficiency findings are limited to muscle and can be associated with proximal weakness and signs of exercise intolerance and cardiomyopathy.

Secondary carnitine deficiency

Secondary carnitine deficiency presents with clinical manifestations of fatty acid oxidation disorders.

Episodes of metabolic decompensation triggered by infection or fasting may present with lethargy that may be accompanied by seizures or apnea.

This encephalopathy may also present with hypotonia and hepatomegaly.

Signs of cardiac hypertrophy may be evident, with gallop or heart murmur on the cardiac examination.[9]

Less frequently, these patients may have other findings, such as pigmentary retinopathy, peripheral neuropathy, cardiac arrhythmias, or myoglobinuria.

Disorders such as glutaric aciduria type II or carnitine palmitoyltransferase II (CPT-II) deficiency can present with dysmorphic features, such as mid-facial hypoplasia and frontal bossing (Zellwegerlike phenotype) and congenital abnormalities of the abdominal wall.



Primary carnitine deficiency

Primary carnitine deficiency is caused by a defect in the plasma membrane carnitine transporter in kidney and muscle. The lack of the plasma membrane carnitine transporter OCTN2 results in urinary carnitine wasting and in decreased intracellular carnitine accumulation. Causative mutations in a gene called SLC22A5 are responsible for this condition.

Muscle carnitine deficiency

Carnitine deficiency limited to the muscle is observed in myopathic carnitine deficiency with severe reduction in muscle carnitine levels. The basic biochemical defect has not been identified.

Secondary carnitine deficiency

Secondary carnitine deficiency, which manifests with a decrease of carnitine levels in plasma or tissues, may be associated with genetically determined metabolic conditions, acquired medical conditions, or iatrogenic states.

Disorders of the carnitine cycle or disorders of fatty acid beta-oxidation can cause secondary carnitine deficiency via several mechanisms. Block in fatty acid oxidation contributes to the accumulation of acyl-CoA intermediates. Transesterification with carnitine leads to the formation of acylcarnitine and the release of free CoA. These acylcarnitines are excreted readily in the urine. They inhibit carnitine uptake at the level of the carnitine transporter in renal cells, causing increased carnitine losses in the urine and systemic secondary depletion of carnitine.

Other genetic conditions that are associated with Fanconi syndrome (eg, Lowe syndrome, cystinosis) may present with secondary carnitine deficiency because of increased renal losses of carnitine. Lysinuric protein intolerance is associated with an increased excretion of lysine in the urine, and the biosynthesis of carnitine needs lysine. Other metabolic disorders (eg, propionic acidemia, methylmalonic acidemia) may also present with secondary carnitine deficiency. Secondary carnitine deficiency may also be observed in respiratory chain defects.

Aminoacidopathies (eg, isovaleric acidemia, propionic acidemia, methylmalonic acidemia, glutaric acidemia type I, 3-hydroxymethylglutaryl-CoA lyase deficiency) also contribute to the accumulation of acyl-CoA intermediates at the site of the metabolic block. This occurs with the formation of acylcarnitine esters, which are transported out of the cell and excreted in the urine. The decreased threshold for carnitine excretion causes low total carnitine levels in plasma and tissue.

Carnitine deficiency has been observed in children with urea cycle defects (eg, ornithine transcarbamylase deficiency, carbamoyl phosphate synthetase deficiency). Whether carnitine deficiency is related to the primary metabolic defect, to the concomitant liver disease observed in the initial presentation, or to benzoate therapy is unclear.

Carnitine deficiency is observed in disorders of the mitochondrial respiratory chain, such as cytochrome c oxidase deficiency, in which the ATP depletion may compromise the energy-dependent carnitine uptake. An interference with carnitine transport occurs in tissues, including renal reabsorption, which explains the low plasma and tissue levels in these patients.

Other inborn errors of metabolism or genetic disorders may cause secondary carnitine deficiency because of impairment of carnitine biosynthesis secondary to increased urinary losses of lysine, which occurs in lysinuric protein intolerance. Increased urinary loss of carnitine associated with Fanconi syndrome may be observed in syndromes such as cystinosis or Lowe syndrome (ie, X-linked oculocerebrorenal syndrome).

Acquired medical conditions may affect carnitine homeostasis. Cirrhosis or chronic renal failure may impair the biosynthesis of carnitine. Diets with low carnitine content (eg, lacto-ovo–vegetarian diet) or malabsorption syndromes may cause secondary carnitine deficiency. It may also be observed in conditions of increased catabolism present in patients with critical illness. Increased losses of carnitine in the urine, which occur in renal tubular acidosis or Fanconi syndrome, may cause secondary carnitine deficiency. Preterm neonates are at risk for developing carnitine deficiency because they have impaired reabsorption of carnitine at the level of the proximal renal tubule and immature carnitine biosynthesis.

In cases of maternal primary carnitine deficiency, few infants were found to have dramatically reduced levels of carnitine in newborn screening. However, these levels rapidly normalized with supplementation. The diagnostic work-up revealed that their mothers had primary carnitine deficiency and were asymptomatic all of their lives, with the mother's disorder being unmasked by low carnitine levels in their infants.

Iatrogenic causes of secondary carnitine deficiency include several drugs associated with secondary carnitine deficiency (eg, valproate, pivampicillin, emetine, zidovudine).

Valproate: Numerous mechanisms have been cited, such as sequestration of CoA by valproic acid and metabolites (causing a secondary disturbance of intermediary metabolism) and direct inhibition of fatty acid oxidation enzymes by valproic acid metabolites. In cultured fibroblasts, valproic acid impairs the plasma membrane carnitine uptake in vitro. This impairment of carnitine uptake may explain serum depletion caused by decreased renal tubular reabsorption of carnitine and muscle depletion caused by decreased muscle uptake.

Zidovudine: Muscle mitochondrial impairment caused by zidovudine in patients with AIDS results in decreased content of muscle carnitine levels caused by decreased carnitine uptake in muscle.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Fernando Scaglia, MD, FACMG Associate Professor of Genetics, Department of Molecular and Human Genetics, Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital

Fernando Scaglia, MD, FACMG is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics, Society for Inherited Metabolic Disorders, Society for the Study of Inborn Errors of Metabolism, American Society of Human Genetics

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Mary L Windle, PharmD Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Lois J Starr, MD, FAAP Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Clinical Geneticist, Munroe Meyer Institute for Genetics and Rehabilitation, University of Nebraska Medical Center

Lois J Starr, MD, FAAP is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Maria Descartes, MD Professor, Department of Human Genetics and Department of Pediatrics, University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine

Maria Descartes, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics, American Medical Association, American Society of Human Genetics, Society for Inherited Metabolic Disorders, International Skeletal Dysplasia Society, Southeastern Regional Genetics Group

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Christian J Renner, MD Consulting Staff, Department of Pediatrics, University Hospital for Children and Adolescents, Erlangen, Germany

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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