Are potassium treatments effective for reduce the excess of potassium among people with chronic kidney disease?

What is the issue?

High levels of potassium (a body salt) can build up with chronic kidney disease. This can lead to changes in muscle function including the heart muscle, and cause problems with heart rhythms that can be dangerous. Dialysis can remove potassium from the blood, but for some patients levels can still be high. Patients with severe kidney failure who have not yet started dialysis may have high potassium levels. Treatments have been available for many years but can cause constipation and abdominal discomfort, which make them intolerable for many patients. Newer treatments have been developed including patiromer and sodium zirconium cyclosilicate. These may be more tolerable but it is uncertain whether they help to prevent heart complications.

What did we do?

We searched for all the research trials that have assessed the potassium-lowering treatments for children and adults with chronic kidney diseases. We evaluated how certain we could be about the overall findings using a system called "GRADE".

What did we find?

There are 15 studies involving 1849 randomised adults. Patients in the studies were given a potassium binder or a dummy pill (placebo) or standard care. The treatment they got was decided by random chance. The studies were generally short-term over days to weeks and focused on potassium levels. Heart related complications could not be measured in this short time frame. Based on the existing research, we can't be sure whether potassium binders improve well-being or prevent complications in people with chronic kidney disease. There were no studies in children.


We can't be certain about the best treatments to reduce body potassium levels for people with chronic kidney disease. We need more information from clinical studies that involve a larger number of patients who have the treatment over several months or years.

Authors' conclusions: 

Evidence supporting clinical decision-making for different potassium binders to treat chronic hyperkalaemia in adults with CKD is of low certainty; no studies were identified in children. Available studies have not been designed to measure treatment effects on clinical outcomes such as cardiac arrhythmias or major GI symptoms. This review suggests the need for a large, adequately powered study of potassium binders versus placebo that assesses clinical outcomes of relevance to patients, clinicians and policy-makers. This data could be used to assess cost-effectiveness, given the lack of definitive studies and the clinical importance of potassium binders for chronic hyperkalaemia in people with CKD.

Read the full abstract...

Hyperkalaemia is a common electrolyte abnormality caused by reduced renal potassium excretion in patients with chronic kidney diseases (CKD). Potassium binders, such as sodium polystyrene sulfonate and calcium polystyrene sulfonate, are widely used but may lead to constipation and other adverse gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms, reducing their tolerability. Patiromer and sodium zirconium cyclosilicate are newer ion exchange resins for treatment of hyperkalaemia which may cause fewer GI side-effects. Although more recent studies are focusing on clinically-relevant endpoints such as cardiac complications or death, the evidence on safety is still limited. Given the recent expansion in the available treatment options, it is appropriate to review the evidence of effectiveness and tolerability of all potassium exchange resins among people with CKD, with the aim to provide guidance to consumers, practitioners, and policy-makers.


To assess the benefits and harms of potassium binders for treating chronic hyperkalaemia among adults and children with CKD.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Kidney and Transplant Register of Studies up to 10 March 2020 through contact with the Information Specialist using search terms relevant to this review. Studies in the Register are identified through searches of CENTRAL, MEDLINE, and EMBASE, conference proceedings, the International Clinical Trials Register (ICTRP) Search Portal and

Selection criteria: 

Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and quasi-randomised controlled studies (quasi-RCTs) evaluating potassium binders for chronic hyperkalaemia administered in adults and children with CKD.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two authors independently assessed risks of bias and extracted data. Treatment estimates were summarised by random effects meta-analysis and expressed as relative risk (RR) or mean difference (MD), with 95% confidence interval (CI). Evidence certainty was assessed using GRADE processes.

Main results: 

Fifteen studies, randomising 1849 adult participants were eligible for inclusion. Twelve studies involved participants with CKD (stages 1 to 5) not requiring dialysis and three studies were among participants treated with haemodialysis. Potassium binders included calcium polystyrene sulfonate, sodium polystyrene sulfonate, patiromer, and sodium zirconium cyclosilicate. A range of routes, doses, and timing of drug administration were used. Study duration varied from 12 hours to 52 weeks (median 4 weeks). Three were cross-over studies. The mean study age ranged from 53.1 years to 73 years. No studies evaluated treatment in children.

Some studies had methodological domains that were at high or unclear risks of bias, leading to low certainty in the results. Studies were not designed to measure treatment effects on cardiac arrhythmias or major GI symptoms.

Ten studies (1367 randomised participants) compared a potassium binder to placebo. The certainty of the evidence was low for all outcomes. We categorised treatments in newer agents (patiromer or sodium zirconium cyclosilicate) and older agents (calcium polystyrene sulfonate and sodium polystyrene sulfonate). Patiromer or sodium zirconium cyclosilicate may make little or no difference to death (any cause) (4 studies, 688 participants: RR 0.69, 95% CI 0.11, 4.32; I2 = 0%; low certainty evidence) in CKD. The treatment effect of older potassium binders on death (any cause) was unknown. One cardiovascular death was reported with potassium binder in one study, showing that there was no difference between patiromer or sodium zirconium cyclosilicate and placebo for cardiovascular death in CKD and HD. There was no evidence of a difference between patiromer or sodium zirconium cyclosilicate and placebo for health-related quality of life (HRQoL) at the end of treatment (one study) in CKD or HD. Potassium binders had uncertain effects on nausea (3 studies, 229 participants: RR 2.10, 95% CI 0.65, 6.78; I2 = 0%; low certainty evidence), diarrhoea (5 studies, 720 participants: RR 0.84, 95% CI 0.47, 1.48; I2 = 0%; low certainty evidence), and vomiting (2 studies, 122 participants: RR 1.72, 95% CI 0.35 to 8.51; I2 = 0%; low certainty evidence) in CKD. Potassium binders may lower serum potassium levels (at the end of treatment) (3 studies, 277 participants: MD -0.62 mEq/L, 95% CI -0.97, -0.27; I2 = 92%; low certainty evidence) in CKD and HD. Potassium binders had uncertain effects on constipation (4 studies, 425 participants: RR 1.58, 95% CI 0.71, 3.52; I2 = 0%; low certainty evidence) in CKD. Potassium binders may decrease systolic blood pressure (BP) (2 studies, 369 participants: MD -3.73 mmHg, 95%CI -6.64 to -0.83; I2 = 79%; low certainty evidence) and diastolic BP (one study) at the end of the treatment. No study reported outcome data for cardiac arrhythmias or major GI events.

Calcium polystyrene sulfonate may make little or no difference to serum potassium levels at end of treatment, compared to sodium polystyrene sulfonate (2 studies, 117 participants: MD 0.38 mEq/L, 95% CI -0.03 to 0.79; I2 = 42%, low certainty evidence). There was no evidence of a difference in systolic BP (one study), diastolic BP (one study), or constipation (one study) between calcium polystyrene sulfonate and sodium polystyrene sulfonate.

There was no difference between high-dose and low-dose patiromer for death (sudden death) (one study), stroke (one study), myocardial infarction (one study), or constipation (one study).

The comparative effects whether potassium binders were administered with or without food, laxatives, or sorbitol, were very uncertain with insufficient data to perform meta-analysis.