The Intravenous Contrast Debate

Does intravenous contrast exposure increase the likelihood of developing renal insufficiency? The consensus opinion has been, generally, “yes”. However, evaluated under a closer lens, it is apparent some of these data come from high-dose use during angiography, from exposure to high-osmolar contrast material not routinely used in present day, and weak evidence from observational cohort studies.

The modern take is, increasingly, potentially “no”. However, it is virtually impossible to conclusively study the effect of intravenous contrast exposure. A prospective, controlled trial would require patients for whom a contrast study was believed important to their medical care be randomized to not receiving the indicated study, leading to all manner of potential harms. Therefore, we are reduced to looking backwards and comparing patients undergoing a contrasted study with those who do not.

This study is probably the best style of this type of evidence we are going to get. This is a propensity-matched analysis of patients undergoing contrast CT, non-contrast CT, and those not undergoing CT at all. Between 5,000 and 7,000 patients comprised each cohort, and these were stratified by baseline comorbidities, medications administered, illness severity indicators, and baseline renal function. After these various adjustments and weighting, the authors did not observe any effect on subsequent acute kidney injury relating to the administration of intravenous contrast – limited to patients with a creatinine of 4.0 mg/dL or below at baseline.

I think this is basically a reasonable conclusion, given the approach. There has been a fair bit of observational content regarding the risk of AKI after a contrast CT, but it is impossible separate the effect of contrast from the effects of the concurrent medical illness requiring the contrast CT. Every effort, of course, should be taken to minimize the use of advanced imaging – but in many instances, the morbidity of a missed diagnosis almost certainly outweighs the risk from intravenous contrast.

“Risk of Acute Kidney Injury After Intravenous Contrast Media Administration”
http://www.annemergmed.com/article/S0196-0644(16)31388-9/abstract

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