Multiple Electrolyte Imbalances and Mixed Acid-base Disorder Posing a Diagnostic Dilemma

A Case Report

Fortune O. Alabi; Christopher O. Alabi; Rafaela G. Basso; Nadia Lakhdar; Adebanke O. Oderinde


J Med Case Reports. 2020;14(15) 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


Background: In clinical practice, both the history and laboratory testing are paramount to making an accurate diagnosis. Situations in which laboratory findings and patient history are not congruent pose a diagnostic dilemma. We report a case of a young woman presenting with a myriad of electrolyte and acid-base disorders. Difficulty in reaching a unifying diagnosis persisted due to discordant patient history. We believe this case shows that lab findings will clearly portray the problems a patient has and should be given more credence in a case where the history is discordant with lab findings.

Case presentation: A 28-year-old Hispanic American woman presented to the emergency room of our institution with a complaint of painless and sudden onset of stiffness in her upper and lower limbs. Associated weakness worse in the distal limbs was also reported. She experienced shortness of breath with minimal exertion, diaphoresis, and anxiety. Her vital signs revealed tachycardia without corresponding fever. She was conscious, oriented, and alert. Her physical exam revealed dry mucous membranes and warm extremities. She denied recent consumption of a large carbohydrate meal, diarrhea, vomiting, use of laxatives, and use of alcohol or recreational drugs. She vaguely described two previous similar episodes in the last 7 months that spontaneously resolved. Her medical history was significant only for hypothyroidism treated with daily levothyroxine tablets. Laboratory analysis revealed the following abnormalities: an elevated anion gap with significant lactate, hypokalemia, hypomagnesemia, elevated mean corpuscular volume, elevated mean cell hemoglobin, and elevated liver enzymes with aspartate aminotransferase/alanine aminotransferase ratio > 2. She was hydrated with balanced crystalloids, and her electrolyte deficiencies corrected. The etiology of her multiple electrolyte abnormalities was unclear because alcohol use was vehemently denied. Extensive evaluation for causes of electrolyte disorder was undertaken, which was unrevealing. On further interrogation, she admitted to recent alcohol intoxication and several episodes of vomiting before presentation. She was advised to refrain from alcohol use and discharged afterward.

Conclusion: Both patient history and laboratory analysis have a role in identifying and confirming a diagnosis. In cases in which laboratory tests are incongruous with reported history, making a unifying diagnosis can be challenging or delayed. The importance of taking a comprehensive history cannot be overemphasized, but history provided by patients may be prone to intentional or unintentional distortion, whereas laboratory findings are more objective. The case presented underscores why the lab findings should be given credence in cases in which there is discordance between lab results and the provided patient history.