Lithium therapy involves taking lithium carbonate, which is a type of salt, to treat symptoms of certain mental disorders such as bipolar disorder. Some people who take antidepressants to treat depression may also take lithium because the antidepressants may not adequately control their symptoms. Throughout this treatment, patients will need to work closely with their doctors to monitor the correct dosage of the drug and its possible side effects.
Bipolar disorder is characterized by cyclical mood changes and other symptoms. Patients in a depressive episode typically have a loss of energy, feelings of depression, and they may experience suicidal thoughts. Those in a manic episode typically experience racing thoughts, and they tend to exhibit impulsive behavior and a need to talk a great deal more than usual. Lithium therapy is used to help control these symptoms to improve the patient's quality of life.
Before prescribing lithium, the doctor will likely require the patient to undergo kidney and thyroid function tests. During treatment, patients should undergo frequent blood testing to prevent lithium toxicity. Most patients will have a drug level between 0.8 to 1.4 milliequivalents per liter (mEq/L) of blood. It is essential to avoid overdosing on lithium, because toxicity can begin at 1.5 mEq/L, or sometimes, at even lower levels.
Patients using lithium therapy should monitor themselves carefully for signs of lithium toxicity, and should get immediate medical help if they experience vomiting, diarrhea, and lack of coordination, which are the early warning signs. As the condition progresses, a patient may notice ringing in the ears, failure of the muscles to work properly, and an unusually large quantity of urine.
Other serious side effects of lithium therapy may include discoloration in the digits, unusual cold sensations, and restless muscle movements. Eye pain, confusion, and fever with muscle stiffness may also occur. Some patients have reported seizures, hallucinations, and fainting as well as light-headedness and a slowed heartbeat.
Special precautions should be followed while using lithium therapy to treat mental disorders. Alcohol and recreational drugs should be avoided, and patients should drink plenty of fluids during exercise and hot weather. They should avoid altering their normal daily intake of salt unless otherwise directed by a physician.
Before beginning lithium therapy, patients must disclose their other medical conditions, medications, and supplements. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not use this drug, and those who are taking it should use birth control. Lithium therapy may be contraindicated for use by those with kidney or heart disease, an underactive thyroid, or organic brain syndrome. This drug may interact with diuretics, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and any antacids that contain sodium bicarbonate.