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What specimen is recommended for creatinine clearance?

Creatinine clearance is an important test used to estimate glomerular filtration rate (GFR) and evaluate kidney function. The specimen recommended for measuring creatinine clearance depends on the clinical context and goals of testing. In most cases, a timed urine collection is preferred over spot urine sampling for creatinine clearance testing. This allows for a more accurate estimate of creatinine clearance and kidney function. However, there are some exceptions where spot urine creatinine may be appropriate. The choice of specimen should be made carefully based on clinical judgement.

Timed Urine Collection for Creatinine Clearance

A timed (or 24-hour) urine collection is the gold standard specimen for measuring creatinine clearance. This test requires the patient to collect all urine over a specified time period, usually 24 hours. The patient’s plasma creatinine level is also measured from a blood sample taken at the start or end of the urine collection period. From these values, creatinine clearance can be calculated using the following formula:

Creatinine clearance (mL/min/1.73m2) = (Urine creatinine x Urine volume) / (Plasma creatinine x Time in minutes)

A timed urine collection allows for the most accurate measurement of creatinine clearance for several reasons:

  • It accounts for fluctuations in creatinine excretion over a 24-hour period.
  • It allows absolute quantification of creatinine excreted in urine over time.
  • The GFR and creatinine clearance calculated from a timed collection is considered the gold standard to which other methods are compared.

Due to the accuracy of timed collections, this is the preferred method for assessing creatinine clearance in most clinical situations. Timed collections are recommended for:

  • Initial evaluation of kidney function
  • Monitoring change in kidney function over time
  • Adjustment of medication dosages that require an accurate measure of kidney function
  • Assessment of kidney function in transplant recipients

Spot Urine Creatinine for Estimating Creatinine Clearance

While timed urine collections are ideal, they are cumbersome for patients to complete. Spot urine samples are sometimes used as a convenience to estimate creatinine clearance. A random spot urine sample is collected at a single point in time. Creatinine concentration is measured along with the concentration of other urine metabolites. These values are compared to population normal values to estimate 24-hour creatinine excretion and creatinine clearance.

Common spot urine tests used to estimate GFR include:

  • Creatinine clearance from spot urine: Creatinine clearance is calculated from the spot urine creatinine, a serum creatinine measurement, and using population average values for creatinine excretion and volume.
  • Creatinine-to-urine creatinine ratio: This compares the spot urine creatinine to the expected 24-hour creatinine excretion.
  • Cystatin C-to-urine cystatin C ratio: Performs a similar comparison using the urine protein cystatin C.

While much quicker and easier to obtain, spot urine samples have some limitations:

  • They rely on population averages rather than direct measurements.
  • Only provide an estimate of creatinine clearance at a single point in time.
  • Less accurate than timed urine collection.

However, spot urine samples may be appropriate when:

  • A general estimate or screening of kidney function is needed.
  • Monitoring for acute changes in kidney function that require rapid assessment.
  • Timed collections are not practical for the patient.
  • Confirming stage 5 chronic kidney disease prior to renal replacement therapy.

Choosing Between Timed vs Spot Urine Creatinine

Deciding between a timed urine collection or spot urine sample for assessing creatinine clearance depends on the clinical context and reason for measuring kidney function. Considerations include:

  • Need for accurate versus estimated GFR: Timed collections are required when accurate quantification of GFR is needed, such as for medication dosing adjustments or assessing eligibility for kidney transplantation.
  • Acute versus chronic kidney disease: Spot urine may be preferred for rapidly assessing changes in kidney function in acute kidney injury. Timed collection is preferred for monitoring chronic kidney disease.
  • Patient convenience and compliance: Spot sampling is much easier for patients to complete.
  • Availability of urine versus plasma creatinine: Spot urine with plasma creatinine provides a quicker but less accurate estimate compared to timed collection.

The following table summarizes some key differences between timed and spot urine creatinine sampling:

Timed urine collection Spot urine creatinine
Gold standard for measuring creatinine clearance Provides estimate of creatinine clearance
Requires 24-hour urine collection Single void urine specimen
Quantifies absolute amount of creatinine excreted Measures urine creatinine concentration only
More accurate and reproducible Less accurate with more variability
Cumbersome for patient to complete Quick and convenient to collect
Delays results by 24 hours Provides rapid turnaround of results
Useful for chronic kidney disease monitoring Helpful for acute kidney injury assessment


In summary, the specimen of choice for creatinine clearance testing depends on the clinical context:

  • Timed 24-hour urine collections are the gold standard and preferred when accurate quantification of GFR is required.
  • Spot urine creatinine may be appropriate when an estimate of GFR is sufficient or patient compliance with timed collection is difficult.
  • Clinical judgment should guide selection of timed versus spot urine creatinine for assessing kidney function.
  • Both methods have a role in evaluating patients with acute or chronic kidney disease.

The decision between performing a timed urine collection versus spot urine sample for creatinine clearance should be made carefully based on the clinical scenario, reason for testing, and other considerations for a particular patient. This ensures the appropriate specimen is used to provide the most accurate assessment of kidney function for optimal patient care and outcomes.

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