To determine the lithium concentration in the blood in order to maintain an appropriate level or to detect lithium toxicity
At regular intervals to monitor lithium levels; as needed to detect low or toxic concentrations
A blood sample taken from a vein in your arm
This test measures the amount of lithium in the blood. Lithium is a drug that is used to treat bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder is a mental condition that is characterised by cycles of depression and mania. These cycles may be as short as a few days or weeks or may be months or years long. During a depressive episode, those affected may feel sad, hopeless, worthless, and lose interest in daily activities. They may be tired but have trouble sleeping, experience weight loss or gain, have difficulty concentrating, and have thoughts of suicide. During a manic episode, those affected may be euphoric, irritable, have high energy and grandiose ideas, use poor judgment, and participate in risky behaviour. Sometimes affected patients will have mixed episodes with aspects of both mania and depression. Bipolar disorder can affect both adults and children.
Lithium is prescribed to even out the moods of the person with bipolar disorder and is sometimes prescribed for patients with depression who are not responding well to other medications. It may take several weeks to months for lithium to affect a person’s mood. Dosages of the drug are adjusted until a steady concentration in the blood is reached. The actual amount of drug that it will take to reach this steady state will vary from person to person and may be affected by the individual’s age, general state of health, and other medications. Lithium levels must be maintained within a narrow therapeutic range. Too little lithium and the medication will not be effective; too much and patients will experience symptoms of lithium toxicity, such as stomach ache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, confusion, blurred vision, sleepiness and tremors (shaking). Extremely high levels can lead to loss of consciousness and/or seizures, and can be fatal.
How is the sample collected for testing?
A blood sample is obtained by inserting a needle into a vein in the arm.
Is any test preparation needed to ensure the quality of the sample?
No test preparation is needed. However, timing of the sample collection may affect results. Lithium blood levels must be performed at least 12 hours (usually 12-18 hours) after the last dose of lithium. Tell the person who draws your blood when you took your last dose so that the results can be interpreted correctly.
How is it used?
The lithium test is requested to monitor the amount of lithium in the blood in order to find out whether drug concentrations are at a concentration where they can be effective. This is known as the "therapeutic range". Lithium tests may be requested every few days when a patient first begins taking lithium to help adjust the dose to the desired blood level. Subsequently the test may be requested at regular intervals or as needed to monitor blood concentrations. One or more lithium tests may be requested if a patient starts taking additional medications (to judge their effect, if any, on lithium levels) if the doctor suspects that levels are too high and causing symptoms of toxicity.
When is it requested?
Lithium tests are often requested when a patient is starting lithium treatment or returning to it after an absence. Once stable blood concentrations in the therapeutic range have been achieved, then lithium should be monitored at regular intervals (3 monthly to annually) to ensure that the concentration remains in this range. Different brands of lithium release lithium into the stomach differently, and blood testing may be required if the brand of lithium is changed, to ensure that blood levels stay the same.
The test may also be requested when a patient’s condition does not appear to be responding to lithium to determine whether concentrations are too low, the medication is ineffective, or if the patient is taking the lithium as prescribed. It may also be requested when a patient experiences a troublesome level of side effects and/or exhibits symptoms that the doctor suspects may be due to toxicity.
Patients should talk to their doctor about the timing of the sample collection. Lithium blood levels must be performed at least 12 hours (usually 12-18 hours) after the last dose of lithium. Since dosage timing varies and some types of tablet release lithium more slowly, detailed collection instructions may vary.
What does the test result mean?
The therapeutic range for lithium has been established as 0.4 – 1.2 mmol/L (0.4 to 1.0 mmol/L in most patients). Within this range, most people will respond to the drug without symptoms of toxicity. Response and side effects will be individual, however. Some people’s condition will not be adequately treated at the lower end of the therapeutic range and some people will experience excessive side effects at the upper end. Patients should work closely with their doctor to find the dosage and concentration that works the best for them.
In general, when lithium results are in the therapeutic range, the doctor and patient are satisfied that the patient’s condition is being appropriately managed and the patient is not experiencing significant side effects, then the dosage of lithium a patient is receiving is adequate. If the patient is below the therapeutic range, it is likely that they are not receiving adequate medication. If they are above the therapeutic range and/or are experiencing significant side effects at their current dose, then it is likely that they are taking too much medication. Patients should not decrease or stop taking their medication without consulting with their doctor, however, as it can worsen their symptoms. Dosage determinations and adjustments must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Is there anything else I should know?
Lithium is excreted mainly by the kidneys. Long-term use of lithium carries a risk of decreased kidney function. Patients with kidney disease may have increased lithium levels because of decreased elimination. Doctors will monitor kidney function over time with tests such as urea, and creatinine, usually every six months.
Lithium levels and side effects can increase with the loss of salt and water from the body, such as may occur with a salt=free diet, excessive sweating, or with an illness that causes vomiting or diarrhoea. If sickness and diarrhoea persists for a day or two, patient should see their doctor urgently.
Women who use lithium during pregnancy are at an increased risk of having their baby develop a rare heart valve defect. Women who want to become pregnant should talk to their doctors about this subject.
A variety of prescribed drugs, over-the-counter medications, and supplements can increase, decrease, or interfere with the concentrations of lithium in the blood. Drugs that can increase lithium concentrations include anti-inflammatory agents such as ibuprofen and naproxen and diuretics such as hydrochlorothiazide and furosemide. Drugs that can increase the side effects of lithium include antipsychotics such as clozapine and olanzapine, blood pressure medications such as calcium channel blockers and angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors, and antiseizure medications such as carbamazepine. Drugs that can decrease lithium concentrations include theophylline and prescription levels of caffeine.
All patients on lithium therapy are recommended to carry a ‘Lithium Alert Card’ to alert health professionals that they are taking lithium, and to keep a ‘Lithium Record Book’ recording details of their treatment. These can be found in the National Patient Safety Agency’s booklet ‘Lithium Therapy – Important Information for Patients’ (see Elsewhere on the Web section)
How long will I need to be on lithium?
Lithium is usually taken every day for a patients lifetime. Bipolar disorder can be managed but not cured.
Who requests lithium tests?
They may be monitored by your primary doctor but may also be requested and monitored by a mental health professional.
Can I test my lithium level at home?
No, it requires specialised equipment. Most blood samples are collected from a vein in the arm and tested in the laboratory.
Elsewhere On The Web
Lithium Therapy: Important Information for Patients - NHS Patient Safety Agency
Bipolar disorder (manic depression) - Royal College of Psychiatrists
Lithium and other mood stabilisers (MIND)