A metabolic acidosis is often strongly suspected because of the clinical presentation of the patient (eg diabetes, renal failure, severe diarrhoea). Three clues from a typical hospital automated biochemical profile are:
This is often reported as part of the laboratory’s automated biochemical profile on a venous blood sample. It represents the total concentration of all the species in the sample which can be converted to carbon dioxide gas. This is:
Total CO2 = [HCO3] + [H2CO3] + [carbamino CO2] + [dissolved CO2]
Apart from bicarbonate, all the other species are present in only small concentrations. The usefulness of the 'total CO2' is as an estimate of the arterial bicarbonate & which can be obtained without collecting an arterial sample. The value will usually be several mmols/liter higher than the actual arterial value due to the inclusion of carbamino & dissolved CO2 and because of the higher CO2 content of venous blood.
Arterial blood gases are important for diagnosis but should always be interpreted in conjunction with the clinical details.
In addition to arterial blood gases, some other investigations useful for indicating a metabolic acidosis and for differentiating between the various major causes are:
There are several indices (which can be calculated from pathology results) which may be useful in assessing a metabolic acidosis:
The anion gap is useful in a couple of ways:
The delta ratio can be useful particularly in the difficult situation of a metabolic acidosis due to two processes where one elevates the anion gap and the other does not. An example is the hyperchloraemic normal anion gap acidosis which may develop in patients who have diabetic ketoacidosis (high anion gap). The ratio gives an indication of the relative contribution of the two processes. Unfortunately, its interpretation is limited somewhat by the wide error margin in this derived variable.