Targeted Hypernatremia In Trauma Brain Injury

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) frightens and confuses most trauma professionals. The brain and its workings are a mystery, and there is very little real science behind a lot of what we do for TBI. One thing that we do know is that intracranial hypertension is bad. And another is that we do have some potent drugs (mannitol, hypertonic saline) to treat it emergently. 

So if we can “dry out” the brain tissue on a moment’s notice and drop the ICP a bit with a hit of sodium, doesn’t it stand to reason that elevating the sodium level constantly might keep the brain from becoming edematous in the first place? Many neurosurgeons buy into this, and have developed protocols to maintain serum sodium levels in the mid-140s and higher. But what about the science?

A nice review was published in Neurocritical care which identified the 3 (!) papers that have promoted this practice in humans with TBI. In general, there was a decrease in ICP in the patients in the cited papers. Unfortunately, there were also a number of serious and sometimes fatal complications, including pulmonary edema and renal failure requiring hemodialysis. These complications generally correlated with the degree of hypernatremia induced. Papers were also reviewed that involved patients with other brain injury, not caused by trauma. Results were similar. 

Bottom line: There is no good literature support, standard of care, or even consensus opinion for prophylactically inducing hypernatremia in patients with TBI. The little literature there is involves patients with severe TBI and ICP monitors in place. There is nothing written yet that justifies the expense (ICU level care) and patient discomfort (frequent blood draws) of using this therapy in patients with milder brain injury and a reliable physical exam. If you want to try out this relatively untried therapy, do us all a favor and design a nice study to show that the benefits truly outweigh the risks. 

And if you can point me to some supportive literature that I’ve missed, please do so!

Related posts:


  • Induced and sustained hypernatremia for the prevention and treatment of cerebral edema following brain injury. Neurocrit Care 19:222-231, 2013.
  • Continuous hyperosmolar therapy for traumatic brain injury-induced cerebral edema: as good as it gets, or an iatrogenic secondary insult? J Clin Neurosci 20:30-31, 2013.
  • Continuous hypertonic saline therapy and the occurrence of complications in neurocritically ill patients. Crit Care Med 37(4):1433-1441, 2009. -> Letter to the editor Crit Care Med 37(8):2490-2491, 2009.
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