Sodium is found mostly in the body fluids outside the cells. Sodium is an electrolyte (mineral). It is very important for maintaining blood pressure. Sodium is also needed for nerves, muscles, and other body tissues to work properly.
When the amount of sodium in fluids outside cells drops below normal, water moves into the cells to balance the levels. This causes the cells to swell with too much water. Brain cells are especially sensitive to swelling, and this causes many of the symptoms of low sodium.
With low sodium level (hyponatremia), the imbalance of water to sodium is caused by one of three conditions:
- Euvolemic hyponatremia -- total body water increases, but the body's sodium content stays the same
- Hypervolemic hyponatremia -- both sodium and water content in the body increase, but the water gain is greater
- Hypovolemic hyponatremia -- water and sodium are both lost from the body, but the sodium loss is greater
Low sodium can be caused by:
- Burns that affect a large area of the body
- Diuretic medicines (water pills), which increase urine output
- Heart failure
- Kidney diseases
- Liver cirrhosis
- Syndrome of inappropriate antidiuretic hormone secretion (SIADH)
Low sodium level is a condition in which the amount of sodium in the blood is lower than normal. The medical name of this condition is hyponatremia.
Exams and Tests
The health care provider will perform a complete physical examination and ask about your symptoms. Blood and urine tests will be done.
Lab tests that can confirm and help diagnose low sodium include:
Outcome depends on the condition that is causing the problem. Low sodium that occurs in less than 48 hours (acute hyponatremia), is more dangerous than low sodium that develops slowly over time. When sodium level falls slowly over days or weeks (chronic hyponatremia), the brain cells have time to adjust and swelling may be minimal.
In severe cases, low sodium can lead to:
- Decreased consciousness, hallucinations or coma
- Brain herniation
Treating the condition that is causing low sodium can help.
If you play sports or do other vigorous activity, drink fluids such as sports drinks that contain electrolytes to keep your body's sodium level in a healthy range.
Common symptoms include:
The cause of low sodium must be diagnosed and treated. If cancer is the cause of the condition, then radiation, chemotherapy, or surgery to remove the tumor may correct the sodium imbalance.
Other treatments depend on the specific type of hyponatremia.
Treatments may include:
- Fluids through a vein (IV)
- Medicines to relieve symptoms
- Limiting water intake
When to Contact a Medical Professional
When your body’s sodium level drops too much, it can be a life-threatening emergency. Call your provider right away if you have symptoms of this condition.
Dineen R, Hannon MJ, Thompson CJ. Hyponatremia and hypernatremia. In: Jameson JL, De Groot LJ, de Kretser DM, et al, eds. Endocrinology: Adult and Pediatric. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 112.
Little M. Metabolic emergencies. In: Cameron P, Jelinek G, Kelly A-M, Brown A, Little M, eds. Textbook of Adult Emergency Medicine. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2015:section 12.