The osmolality test provides a snapshot of the number of solutes present in the blood (serum), urine, or stool. It is ordered to help evaluate the body's water balance or its ability to produce and concentrate urine, to help investigate low sodium levels (hyponatremia), to detect the presence of toxins such as methanol and ethylene glycol, and to monitor osmotically active drug therapies such as mannitol, used to treat cerebral edema. It is also ordered to help monitor the effectiveness of treatment for any conditions found to be affecting a person's osmolality.
Serum osmolality is primarily ordered to investigate hyponatremia. Hyponatremia may be due to sodium loss through the urine or to increased fluid in the bloodstream. Increased fluid may be due to drinking excessive amounts of water, water retention, decreased ability of the kidneys to produce urine, or the presence of osmotically active agents such as glucose, mannitol, or glycine (a chemical used in surgical irrigation fluids). Marathon runners, for example, can experience acute hyponatremia by drinking large quantities of water in a short period of time to replace fluid lost in sweat. People who chronically drink excessive amounts of water, by choice or due to a psychological condition, may have chronic hyponatremia. Someone may also appear to have low sodium when the percentage of water in their blood decreases due to the presence of increased proteins or lipids.
Mannitol, glycine, and the ingestion of toxins such as methanol, ethylene glycol, isopropyl alcohol, and propylene glycol can be detected, evaluated, and monitored by ordering an osmotic gap (also called osmolal gap). This calculation compares measured osmolality with measurements of the major solutes. The osmotic gap is the difference between them. An osmolal gap of greater than 10 is considered abnormal and represents the presence of an osmotically active substance in the blood.
In order to calculate the osmotic gap, tests for blood sodium, blood urea nitrogen (BUN), and glucose must be performed to calculate the expected osmolality. Some versions of the expected osmolality calculation also include the measurement of ethanol. An example calculation is:
Serum Osmolality Calculation (ethanol not always included)
2 x (Na+) + (Glucose/18) + (BUN/2.8) + (Ethanol/3.8)
Note: Glucose, BUN, and ethanol may be reported in mg/dL (milligrams per deciliter) or mmol/L (millimole per liter). The numbers shown in the equation above are used to convert from mg/dL to mmol/L. For mmol/L, the equation would be:
Urine osmolality is frequently ordered along with serum osmolality. It is used to help evaluate the body's water balance and to investigate increased and decreased urine output. Increased urine output may be due to increased fluid intake, lack of appropriate amounts of ADH, or diabetes, with increased glucose levels leading to increased urine output. Decreased urine output may be due to a variety of causes, including decreased blood flow to the kidneys, an appropriate response to dehydration, or damage to tubular cells in the kidneys. Urine sodium and creatinine are often ordered along with urine osmolality. Sometimes a urine osmotic gap is calculated and used to help evaluate the kidney's ability to excrete acid and reabsorb bicarbonate, to detect the presence of osmotically active molecules, and to compare with the serum osmotic gap.
Stool osmolality may sometimes be ordered to help evaluate chronic diarrhea that does not appear to be due to a bacterial or parasitic infection or to another identifiable cause such as intestinal inflammation or damage. People with watery chronic diarrhea may have an osmotically active substance, such as a commercial laxative, that is inhibiting the reabsorption of water by the intestines. Sometimes a stool osmotic gap is calculated.
A serum osmolality test and osmotic gap may be ordered when a person has symptoms that a health practitioner suspects may be due to hyponatremia such as:
In severe cases, seizures or coma
These tests may also be ordered when it is suspected that someone has ingested a toxin such as methanol or ethylene glycol.
A urine osmolality test may be ordered along with blood testing when a health practitioner wants to compare urine results with the serum osmolality and/or when the person being tested is producing increased or decreased quantities of urine. Both may be ordered when is is suspected that the person may have diabetes.
Osmolality testing may be ordered for asymptomatic people with unexplained hyponatremia when a low sodium is discovered during testing for other reasons. Serum and urine osmolality testing may be ordered frequently to monitor the effectiveness of treatment for these conditions and at regular intervals to monitor those taking the drug mannitol.
Stool osmolality may be ordered when a health practitioner suspects that a person's chronicdiarrhea may be due to an osmotically active substance.
Osmolality is dynamic and will fluctuate as the body responds to and corrects temporary water imbalances. Serum and urine osmolality tests must be evaluated in the context of the person's clinical presentation and along with the findings of other tests, such as sodium, glucose, and BUN. Osmolality results are not diagnostic; they suggest that a person has an imbalance, but they do not pinpoint the cause.
In general, if someone has an increased serum osmolality, it is due to either decreased water in the blood or increased solutes. If the person has decreased serum osmolality, it is due to increased fluid levels.
When someone has an increased osmotic gap and is suspected of ingesting a toxin such as methanol, then it is likely that the person has done so, with the size of the gap related to the amount of toxin. During monitoring, if osmolality, the osmotic gap, and findings such as a low sodium level return to normal, then treatment has been effective.
With mannitol therapy, the monitoring goal is the maintenance of a stable "therapeutic" osmotic gap and the relief of cerebral edema.
When a person has increased urine output and low osmolality, then the person either is ridding their body of excess fluids or is unable to concentrate urine appropriately. Increased urine output and a high osmolality may be seen when there is a substance being flushed from the body, such as excess glucose with diabetes. If a person has decreased urine output and high osmolality, then the person may be dehydrated; if someone has low or normal osmolality, the person may have kidney damage.
If someone has an increased stool osmolality gap, then it is likely that an osmotically active substance is causing their chronic liquid diarrhea. This can be seen with malabsorption and laxative abuse.
A calculation is sometimes ordered for "free water clearance" to help evaluate the ability of the kidney tubules to appropriately concentrate and dilute urine. When urine osmolality is about the same as plasma osmolality, then free water clearance is zero. When blood volume decreases and urine is concentrated, then free water clearance will be negative. When fluid levels are increased and urine is dilute, then free water clearance will be positive.
This article was last reviewed on October 25, 2013. | This article was last modified on April 10, 2015.
The review date indicates when the article was last reviewed from beginning to end to ensure that it reflects the most current science. A review may not require any modifications to the article, so the two dates may not always agree.
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