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Section 3 - Complications of TPN


Mechanical, metabolic, and septic complications are associated with PN therapy. Mechanical and septic complications are related to obtaining and maintaining a route of central vascular access. Metabolic complications require both a thorough assessment of patients prior to initiation of PN and close monitoring while receiving PN. Careful attention to detail minimizes complications.

Mechanical complications

Mechanical complications are primarily related to the initial placement of a central venous catheter. Improper placement may cause pneumothorax, vascular injury with hemothorax, brachial plexus injury or cardiac arrhythmia.

Venous thrombosis is one of the two most common problems that occur after central venous access is established. The other is infection. Venous thrombosis is associated with significant morbidity rates. Signs include distended neck veins and swelling of the face and ipsilateral arm. The risk of venous thrombosis is greater if patients are dehydrated, have certain malignancies, have had prolonged bed rest, have venous stasis, have sepsis, or have hypercoagulation. Additional risk factors include morbid obesity, smoking, or ongoing estrogen therapy.

Infectious complications

PN imposes a chronic breech in the body's barrier system. The infusion apparatus from container to catheter tip may prove a source for the introduction of bacterial or fungal organisms. The operator inserting the venous catheter, the pharmacist compounding the solution, or the care-giver hanging the bag or changing the site dressing may contaminate the patient's "lifeline."

Infection is one of the two most common problems that arise after central venous access is established. The other is venous thrombosis, discussed earlier. The mortality rate from catheter sepsis may be as high as 15%.

The primary preventive measures include adhering to strict aseptic procedure while establishing access and providing care of the dressing and line, and prohibiting the use of the TPN line for other purposes. Other preventive measures include:

  • Changing the dressing routinely (every 48-72 hours) or when it becomes soiled, wet or loose. The care-giver should wear a mask and gloves while changing the dressing.
  • Extending the application of antimicrobial solution at least 1 inch beyond the final dressing.
  • Placing a sterile sponge over the catheter, then placing an occlusive dressing.
  • Inspecting the site for tenderness, erythema, edema, loose sutures, or drainage.
  • Changing the TPN intravenous tubing every 48 hours. A 0.22-Ám in-line filter should be used whenever fat is not being infused.
  • Avoiding violation of TPN catheters for central venous pressure monitoring or the administration of intravenous medications or blood products.

Metabolic complications

Metabolic complications fall into two broad categories: early and late complications. Those in the first category occur early in the process of feeding and may be anticipated. They are avoided by careful monitoring and appropriate adjustment of intake. Late metabolic complications are less predictable. They may be caused by an exacerbation of preexisting abnormalities, unpredictable long-term requirements, inadequate solution composition, or failure to monitor adequately.

Metabolic complications of PN
Early complications Late complications
Volume overload Essential fatty acid deficiency
Hyerglycemia Trace mineral deficiency
Refeeding syndrome Vitamin deficiency
Hypokalemia Metabolic bone disease
Hypophosphatemia Hepatic steatosis
Hypomagnesemia Hepatic cholestasis
Hyperchloremic acidosis

Fluid and electrolyte complications

Electrolyte management is one of the most difficult aspects of PN therapy. Often electrolytes are outside of the normal range based on an underlying cause rather than directly related to the PN solution. For this reason, no specific guidance can be given to adjust individual electrolytes based on laboratory serum concentration. Instead, incremental dose adjustments are made concurrent with treatment of the underlying cause of electrolyte abnormality. Patient acuity will prescribe the magnitude of dosing adjustments as well as the need for more frequent monitoring. In general, supplemental electrolyte doses in response to an acute underlying condition are best managed outside of PN therapy.

Sodium - Normal = 135 - 145 mEq/L

Excess (Hypernatremia) Deficiency (Hyponatremia)
Contributing Factors
  • Dehydration
  • Diabetes Insipidus
  • Excess sodium intake
  • Excess Fluid
  • Hyperlipidemia
  • Hyperproteinemia
  • Hyperglycemia
  • Gastrointestinal, Skin and Renal Losses
  • SIADH (Syndrome of Inappropriate Antidiuretic Hormone)
Signs & symptoms
  • Thirst
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Tremulousness
  • Spasticity
  • Hyperreflexia
  • Ataxia
  • Seizures
  • Coma
  • Intracranial Bleeding
  • Bloating
  • Headache
  • Anorexia
  • Muscle cramps
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Lethargy
  • Seizures
  • Cerebral edema
  • Increased Intracranial Pressure
  • Replace fluid deficit
  • Check for excess sodium intake
  • Check blood sugar
  • Decrease fluid intake
  • Check for causes of fluid retention
  • Check for causes of sodium loss
  • Administer sodium if patient at risk for seizures

Potassium - Normal = 3.5 - 5.0 mEq/L

Excess (Hyperkalemia) Deficiency (Hypokalemia)
Contributing Factors
  • Acidosis
  • Insulin Deficiency
  • Chemotherapy
  • Rhabdomyolysis
  • Burns
  • Renal Dysfunction
  • Excessive Potassium Intake
  • Potassium Containing Drugs
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Draining Fistulas
  • Diuretic-Induced Renal Losses
  • Metabolic Alkalosis
  • Plasma Volume Contraction
Signs & Symptoms
  • Muscle Weakness
  • Arrhythmias
  • Myalgias
  • Weakness
  • Cramps
  • Bradyarrhythmias
  • Heart Block
  • Paroxysmal Atrial Tachycardia
  • Paralytic Ileus
  • Restrict potassium intake
  • Identify and correct underlying cause
  • Replace potassium deficit
  • Check for magnesium deficiency
  • Identify cause of potassium loss
  • Check for re-feeding syndrome

Magnesium - Normal = 1.5 - 2.0 mEq/L

Excess (Hypermagnesemia) Deficiency (Hypomagnesemia)
Contributing Factors
  • Renal dysfunction
  • Excessive intake
  • Gastrointestinal malabsorption
  • Renal wasting disorders (drugs, alcoholism)
  • Insufficient intake
  • Parathyroid disease
Signs & Symptoms
  • Hyporeflexia
  • Muscle weakness
  • Flaccid paralysis with respiratory depression
  • Lethargy
  • Sedation
  • Stupor
  • Coma
  • Hypotension
  • Sinus bradycardia
  • Neuromuscular hyperactivity
  • Tremor
  • Twitching
  • Hyperreflexia
  • Paresthesias
  • Tetany
  • Seizures
  • Apathy
  • Depression
  • Agitation
  • Ventricular fibrillation and tachycardia
  • Check renal function
  • Check for sources of excess intake
  • Check for re-feeding syndrome
  • Identify cause of excess losses
  • Replace magnesium deficiency

Calcium - Normal = 8.5 - 10.5 mg/dl

Excess (Hypercalcemia) Deficiency (Hypocalcemia)
Contributing Factors
  • Neoplasia with bone metastases
  • Hyperparathyroidism
  • Drugs (thiazides, lithium, vitamin A & D, calcium supplements)
  • Immobilization
  • Carcoidosis
  • Tuberculosis
  • Beryliosis
  • Hypoalbuminemia
  • Hypoparathyroidism
  • Metabolic and respiratory alkalosis
  • Vitamin D Deficiency
  • Drugs (furosemide, calcitonin, phenytoin, barbiturates, mithramycin, oral phosphorus)
Signs & Symptoms
  • Anorexia
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Polyuria
  • Polydipsia
  • Renal failure
  • Nephrolithiasis
  • Metastatic calcification
  • Tetany
  • Paresthesias
  • Muscle spasms and cramps
  • Carpopedal spasms
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Confusion
  • Delusion
  • Seizures
  • Decreased myocardial contractility
  • Reduce calcium intake
  • Identify and treat underlying cause
  • Consider overdose of Vitamins A or D as a cause
  • Consider hydrating the patient
  • Evaluate the accuracy of the lab results based on albumin levels
  • Replace calcium deficit
  • Replace protein deficit
  • Replace Vitamin D deficit
  • Remove excess phosphate intake
  • Identify and treat underlying cause

Phosphorus - Normal = 3.0 - 4.5 mg/dl

Excess (Hyperphosphatemia) Deficiency (Hypophosphatemia)
Contributing Factors
  • Renal dysfunction
  • Hypoparathyroidism
  • Excessive intake
  • Rhabdomyosis
  • Chemotherapy
  • Phosphate binding drugs (sucralfate, aluminum/magnesium containing antacids, calcium carbonate)
  • Burn recovery
  • Respiratory alkalosis
  • Diabetic ketoacidosis
  • Alcoholism
Signs & Symptoms
  • Symptomatic hypocalcemia
  • Calcium phosphate deposition in bone and soft tissue
  • Irritability
  • Apprehension
  • Wakefulness
  • Confusion
  • Acute respiratory failure
  • Decreased cardiac contractility
  • Hepatocellular dysfunction
  • Anorexia
  • Nausea
  • Hemolysis
  • Red blood cell or platelet dysfunction
  • Reduce phosphate intake
  • Identify and treat underlying cause
  • Consider the use of phosphate binding drugs
  • Check for re-feeding syndrome
  • Replace phosphate deficit slowly to avoid hypocalcemic tetany
  • Identify and treat underlying cause

Refeeding syndrome

Refeeding of severely malnourished patients may result in "refeeding syndrome" in which there are acute decreases in circulating levels of potassium, magnesium, and phosphate. The sequelae of refeeding syndrome adversely affect nearly every organ system and include cardiac dysrhythmias, heart failure, acute respiratory failure, coma, paralysis, nephropathy, and liver dysfunction.

The primary cause of the metabolic response to refeeding is the shift from stored body fat to carbohydrate as the primary fuel source. Serum insulin levels rise, causing intracellular movement of electrolytes for use in metabolism.

The best advice when initiating nutritional support is to "start low and go slow". Recommendations to reduce the risk of refeeding syndrome include:

  • Recognize patients at risk
    • Anorexia nervosa
    • Classic kwashiorkor or marasmus
    • Chronic malnutrition
    • Chronic alcoholism
    • Prolonged fasting
    • Prolonged IV hydration
    • Significant stress and depletion
  • Correct electrolyte abnormalities before starting nutritional support
  • Administer volume and energy slowly
  • Monitor pulse, I/O, electrolytes closely
  • Provide appropriate vitamin supplementation
  • Avoid overfeeding

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Section 3 - Complications of TPN

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