Cerebral Salt-Wasting Syndrome

Updated: Apr 28, 2017
  • Author: Sudha Garimella, MBBS; Chief Editor: Sasigarn A Bowden, MD  more...
  • Print


First described by Peters et al in 1950, cerebral salt-wasting syndrome is defined by the development of extracellular volume depletion due to a renal sodium transport abnormality in patients with intracranial disease and normal adrenal and thyroid function. [1] As such, it may be more appropriately termed renal salt wasting. Complications of cerebral salt-wasting syndrome include symptomatic hyponatremia and dehydration. (See Pathophysiology, Etiology, and Presentation.)

Differentiation of this disorder from the syndrome of inappropriate antidiuretic hormone secretion (SIADH), a common cause of hyponatremia, can be difficult because both can present with hyponatremia and concentrated urine with natriuresis. However, distinguishing between the 2 disorders is important because treatment options differ. Failure to distinguish cerebral salt-wasting syndrome from SIADH in a patient with hyponatremia who has brain injury could lead to inappropriate therapy with fluid restriction. (See Presentation and Workup.)

Although the diagnosis of cerebral salt-wasting syndrome is thought to be controversial by some, [2] it should be considered a discrete clinical entity and may be more common than perceived. [3] It should also be considered in patients without cerebral disease. [2, 4] Possible mechanisms for cerebral salt-wasting syndrome are shown in the chart below.

Possible mechanisms for cerebral salt-wasting synd Possible mechanisms for cerebral salt-wasting syndrome. The injured brain may release natriuretic proteins that act directly on the kidney. In addition, cerebral injury may increase sympathetic nervous system activity, elevating renal perfusion pressure and releasing dopamine.


Cerebral salt-wasting syndrome, or renal salt wasting, may be more common than SIADH and may even occur in the absence of cerebral disease. [2, 3, 5] Although the exact mechanism that underlies the development of cerebral salt-wasting syndrome is unclear, it is known that the initiating defect in renal sodium transport leads to extracellular volume depletion and that a cascade of compensatory changes occurs.

Abnormalities in the proximal tubule result in excessive sodium losses, which lead to decreased effective circulating volume. This activates baroreceptors, which increase antidiuretic hormone (ADH) secretion. This results in water conservation and a return to an equilibrated state. In contrast, SIADH primarily occurs due to an inappropriate euvolemic rise in ADH secretion.

The relationship among serum urate, fractional excretion of urate, and hyponatremia in cerebral salt-wasting syndrome is unclear. Fractional excretion of urate may remain elevated even after correction of hyponatremia in patients with cerebral salt-wasting syndrome. This is distinct from SIADH, in which the fractional excretion of urate returns to the reference range once the hyponatremia is corrected. [4] The physiologic basis for this in cerebral salt-wasting syndrome may be related to the receptor-mediated processing of sodium and urate in the proximal tubule, which may be defective in this syndrome. The physiologic basis for hypouricemia in SIADH remains unclear.

The abnormalities in proximal tubular transport may be secondary to a plasma natriuretic factor that reduces proximal and, possibly, distal sodium transport in cerebral salt-wasting syndrome. It may also inhibit the tubular transport of urate, phosphate, and urea in addition to sodium. [6]



Cerebral salt-wasting syndrome, or renal salt wasting, occurs in the setting of acute central nervous system (CNS) disease. Conditions leading to cerebral salt-wasting syndrome include the following:

  • Head injury
  • Brain tumor
  • Intracranial surgery
  • Stroke
  • Intracerebral hemorrhage [7]
  • Tuberculous meningitis
  • Craniosynostosis repair

A study by Kalita et al suggested that cerebral salt wasting is the most frequent cause of stroke-related hyponatremia. The study, of 100 patients with stroke, including 47% with ischemic stroke and 53% with intracerebral hemorrhage, found that 43% of the stroke patients had hyponatremia. Of these, 19 (44.2%) had cerebral salt wasting, while 3 (7.0%) had SIADH, 14 (32.6%) had miscellaneous causes of hyponatremia, and 7 (16.3%) had indeterminate causes of the condition. The investigators also found that length of hospital stay independently predicted the development of cerebral salt wasting and hyponatremia. [8]

Cerebral salt-wasting syndrome can also occur in the absence of cerebral disease. [5]

The exact mechanism underlying cerebral salt-wasting syndrome remains unclear. In the setting of cerebral injury, one hypothesis is that an exaggerated renal pressure–natriuresis response caused by increased activity of the sympathetic nervous system and dopamine release is responsible for urinary sodium loss.

Another hypothesis involves the release of natriuretic factors, possibly including brain natriuretic peptide (C-type natriuretic peptide) or urodilatin by the injured brain. Kojima et al have described an animal model of cerebral salt-wasting syndrome that may allow better clarification of the condition’s etiology. [9]



Occurrence in the United States

Exact incidence data for this disorder are not available. Approximately 60% of children with brain injuries or tumors develop hyponatremia during their hospital course. Some experts suggest that cerebral salt-wasting syndrome (renal salt wasting) is responsible for hyponatremia at least as often as SIADH is, particularly in neurosurgical patients. Other studies indicate that this syndrome explains the development of hyponatremia in no more than 6% of patients with acute brain injuries. [10] A literature review by Leonard et al found the incidence of cerebral salt-wasting syndrome reported in traumatic brain injury to vary between 0.8-34.6%, with the studies determining these incidences differing with respect to the populations evaluated and the definitions used for hyponatremia and cerebral salt wasting. [11] The exact incidence of renal salt-wasting syndrome without cerebral disease is also unknown.

Age-related demographics

Cerebral salt-wasting syndrome can occur at any age. Published reports include patients aged 6 months to 65 years.



Cerebral salt-wasting syndrome usually develops in the first week following a brain insult. Its duration is usually brief (spontaneously resolves in 2-4 wk), although it can last for several months. Death and complication rates for this syndrome are not available. (See Treatment and Medication.)