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West J Emerg Med. 2017 Aug;18(5):963-971. doi: 10.5811/westjem.2017.6.33033. Epub 2017 Jul 10.

Severe Hyperkalemia: Can the Electrocardiogram Risk Stratify for Short-term Adverse Events?

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Kent Hospital, Department of Emergency Medicine, Warwick, Rhode Island.
The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island.
The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, Department of Emergency Medicine, Providence, Rhode Island.



The electrocardiogram (ECG) is often used to identify which hyperkalemic patients are at risk for adverse events. However, there is a paucity of evidence to support this practice. This study analyzes the association between specific hyperkalemic ECG abnormalities and the development of short-term adverse events in patients with severe hyperkalemia.


We collected records of all adult patients with potassium (K+) ≥6.5 mEq/L in the hospital laboratory database from August 15, 2010, through January 30, 2015. A chart review identified patient demographics, concurrent laboratory values, ECG within one hour of K+ measurement, treatments and occurrence of adverse events within six hours of ECG. We defined adverse events as symptomatic bradycardia, ventricular tachycardia, ventricular fibrillation, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and/or death. Two emergency physicians blinded to study objective independently examined each ECG for rate, rhythm, peaked T wave, PR interval duration and QRS complex duration. Relative risk was calculated to determine the association between specific hyperkalemic ECG abnormalities and short-term adverse events.


We included a total of 188 patients with severe hyperkalemia in the final study group. Adverse events occurred within six hours in 28 patients (15%): symptomatic bradycardia (n=22), death (n=4), ventricular tachycardia (n=2) and CPR (n=2). All adverse events occurred prior to treatment with calcium and all but one occurred prior to K+-lowering intervention. All patients who had a short-term adverse event had a preceding ECG that demonstrated at least one hyperkalemic abnormality (100%, 95% confidence interval [CI] [85.7-100%]). An increased likelihood of short-term adverse event was found for hyperkalemic patients whose ECG demonstrated QRS prolongation (relative risk [RR] 4.74, 95% CI [2.01-11.15]), bradycardia (HR<50) (RR 12.29, 95%CI [6.69-22.57]), and/or junctional rhythm (RR 7.46, 95%CI 5.28-11.13). There was no statistically significant correlation between peaked T waves and short-term adverse events (RR 0.77, 95% CI [0.35-1.70]).


Our findings support the use of the ECG to risk stratify patients with severe hyperkalemia for short-term adverse events.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]
Free PMC Article

Conflict of interest statement

Conflicts of Interest: By the WestJEM article submission agreement, all authors are required to disclose all affiliations, funding sources and financial or management relationships that could be perceived as potential sources of bias. No author has professional or financial relationships with any companies that are relevant to this study. There are no conflicts of interest or sources of funding to declare.

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