Sodium is found mostly in the body fluids outside the cells. 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, 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 hyponatremia.
The cause of hyponatremia must be diagnosed and treated. If cancer is the cause of the condition, 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)
Medication to relieve symptoms
The outcome depends on the condition that is causing the problem. Acute hyponatremia, which occurs in less than 48 hours, is more dangerous than hyponatremia 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 is minimal.
Hyponatremia can be a life-threatening emergency. Call your health care provider right away if you have symptoms of this condition.
Treating the condition that is causing hyponatremia can help. If you play sports, drink fluids such as sports drinks that contain electrolytes. Drinking only water while you are active can lead to acute hyponatremia.
Skorecki K, Ausiello D. Disorders of sodium and water homeostasis. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman’s Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 118.
David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.