Lithium is one of the medications that may be recommended for the treatment of alcohol withdrawal and alcohol use disorders. Lithium has been used for this purpose since the 1970s. Studies have shown that the use of lithium for alcohol withdrawal helps to reduce shaking and other visible withdrawal symptoms. Additionally, the medication significantly improves motor skills during the withdrawal process.
Research suggests that using lithium for alcohol use disorders may have long-term benefits, too. In fact, studies have found that individuals with alcohol use disorders who take lithium for one year have fewer episodes of alcohol use than those who do not take the medicine.
This guide will help you understand what lithium is and how it can help with alcohol use disorders and co-occurring conditions. You will learn about the potential side effects of the medicine and the precautions to take during treatment.
What Is Lithium?
Lithium is an element that exists in nature, and it was discovered in 1817. In 1871, it was used for the first time as a treatment for mania. It is a prescription drug that acts as a mood stabilizer. The drug works by altering the way that sodium moves through the nerves and muscles. Sodium helps regulate moods and feelings of excitement.
What Conditions Does Lithium Treat?
In addition to using lithium for alcohol withdrawal and alcohol use disorders, the medicine is still used today to treat symptoms of mania that are associated with bipolar disorder. It can help ease aggression, anger, restlessness and hyperactivity. It is used for the treatment of acute symptoms, and patients with bipolar disorder may also take lithium on a long-term basis to prevent episodes of mania or to reduce the intensity of these episodes.
In some cases, lithium is recommended for the treatment of recurrent depression, and clinicians may consider it for certain patients with schizophrenia. In addition, lithium could be considered as a treatment for aggressive behavior.
How Does Lithium Help With the Treatment of Alcohol Use Disorders and Co-Occurring Conditions?
Studies of lithium and alcohol use disorders were first conducted in the 1970s. Since that time, multiple studies on lithium and alcohol use have been completed, and the results have been encouraging. When lithium is used for the long-term treatment of alcohol use disorders, the studies show that the patient’s desire to consume alcohol is reduced. If lithium and alcohol are consumed together, the patient will have a reduced sense of intoxication. The use of both lithium and alcohol will also lead to reductions in the cognitive dysfunction that occurs with alcohol use.
Studies of lithium and alcohol use disorders carried out over at least 18 months show that lithium significantly reduces the rate of readmission for alcohol use disorder treatment. Lithium seems to promote abstinence for patients with alcohol use disorders.
While the above findings on lithium and alcohol use disorders are true for patients with and without co-occurring conditions, research shows that co-occurring conditions are present for at least 40% of individuals with alcohol use disorders. Bipolar disorder is one of the most common co-occurring conditions for patients with alcohol use disorders. Lithium helps reduce the impulsive behavior and anger that can occur with bipolar disorder, and it can reduce a person’s urge to consume alcohol. Lithium significantly reduces the risk of suicide in patients who have bipolar disorder.
Is Lithium Right for Me?
Before prescribing lithium for alcohol withdrawal or any other purpose, clinicians will take a full medical history. They may perform a physical examination. These steps are necessary to determine whether lithium is safe for the patient’s overall health.
During the medical history portion of the exam, patients should let their doctor know if they have any history of breathing issues, heart disease, kidney disease, or thyroid disease. Patients should inform the clinician if they have a history of epilepsy, Addison’s disease, psoriasis, or myasthenia gravis. The physician will also need to know whether the patient has ever experienced fainting and whether the patient has ever had an abnormal ECG. If anyone in the patient’s family has passed away before the age of 45, the patient should make sure to mention this to the medical professional.
Currently, scientists do not know whether lithium is safe for use by individuals who are pregnant. People who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant should discuss the risks and benefits of lithium for their situation. People who are breastfeeding should not use lithium.
What Are the Recommended Doses for Lithium?
For the control of acute symptoms, most patients take 1,800 milligrams of lithium per day. When extended-release tablets are used, patients may take 900 milligrams in the morning and 900 milligrams in the evening. For regular tablets, individuals use three daily doses of 600 milligrams each.
When using lithium on a long-term basis, the recommended dose is between 900 to 1200 milligrams per day.
What Are the Potential Side Effects of Lithium?
Like all medications, lithium may cause side effects for some patients. The most commonly reported side effects associated with lithium are:
- Weight Changes
- Difficulty Controlling Fine Hand Movements
- Abdominal Pain
- Hair Loss
- Changes in How Food Tastes
- Joint or Muscle Pain
- Loss of Appetite
Patients should let their prescribing physician know immediately if these side effects are persistent or severe. Some people who use lithium may develop more serious side effects. Although these are less common, patients should seek emergency medical care if they notice any of these effects:
- Foot, Ankle or Lower Leg Swelling
- Chest Tightness or Pain
- Crossed Eyes
- Changes in Heart Rhythm
- Slow or Jerky Movements
Depending on the severity of the patient’s side effects, doctors may recommend changing the patient’s lithium dose or switching to another medicine.
What Should I Know About Lithium Toxicity?
Lithium toxicity is a rare side effect that may develop during the use of this medicine. It can be fatal. To prevent this side effect, patients should seek emergency medical attention if they have any of these symptoms:
- Blurred Vision
- Slurred Speech
- Ringing in the Ears
How Can I Take Lithium Safely?
While taking lithium, it is important to follow all directions printed on the label and in the medication leaflet. Patients should take the exact dose that has been prescribed. This medicine can cause serious side effects if it is taken in doses that are only slightly larger than the prescribed dose. Patients should only take lithium for the length of time that their healthcare provider prescribes.
You should swallow lithium tablets whole. Never crush or chew the tablets. If you are using the liquid form of this drug, you should measure the correct dose with the included dosing syringe. You should never measure this medicine with a kitchen spoon.
To store lithium safely, keep the medicine bottle tightly closed and away from heat and moisture. This medication should be kept out of the reach of children.
What Precautions Should I Take During Lithium Treatment?
Since lithium can increase the risk for dehydration, it’s important to drink a sufficient amount of liquid each day. However, drinking too much fluid during treatment could be dangerous. You should ask your healthcare provider about an appropriate liquid intake and about the types of liquids that you should drink. It may help to keep a log of your daily fluid intake during treatment.
During treatment with lithium, continue to consume the same amount of salt in your diet that you normally would. Altering your salt intake could cause the amount of lithium in your body to change.
After starting lithium, you will need to avoid driving and any other potentially hazardous activities until you understand how lithium affects you. This medication can impair reaction time.
What Monitoring Is Necessary During Treatment?
While taking lithium, you will probably need to have regular blood tests. These tests are necessary to measure the amount of lithium in your blood. Lithium has a very narrow dose range, and doctors will use the test results to adjust your dose so that it is effective and safe for you.
If you need to have surgery, let your surgeon know that you are taking lithium.
When Might I Notice an Improvement in My Symptoms?
Depending on the conditions for which lithium is being used, it may take up to three weeks to notice an improvement in symptoms. However, you should let your healthcare provider know if you have not seen any improvement after the first week of treatment.
Where Can I Find Out More About Using Lithium for Alcohol Withdrawal?
The medical team at CNV Detox routinely uses lithium for alcohol withdrawal treatment. We can help you understand whether lithium may be beneficial for your particular situation and overall health needs. Our knowledgeable, compassionate team will take care of you at each step of your treatment and recovery. Contact us to speak with our team members today. It is an honor to be part of your care.