Pros and Cons of Lithium for Bipolar Treatment

According to the NLM, “Lithium is used to treat and prevent episodes of mania (frenzied, abnormally excited mood) in people with bipolar disorder (manic-depressive disorder; a disease that causes episodes of depression, episodes of mania, and other abnormal moods).” Although lithium is one of the most common treatments used for bipolar disorder, the medication has its drawbacks. Anyone who is considering taking lithium as a bipolar treatment should first learn and understand the pros and cons of how this medication will affect them.

Is Lithium Effective in Its Treatment of Bipolar Disorder?

As stated by the Better Health Channel, “When people experience an acute episode of mania or depression, they often require immediate care and treatment. These episodes can often be prevented by regular medication such as lithium.” The drug actually helps to prevent intense episodes of either mania or depression, especially that of mania in bipolar patients. While lithium is effective for this specific purpose, it cannot cure bipolar disorder.

Lithium does have a “well established efficacy” in treating both mania and depression in bipolar individuals. In fact, according to the Drexel University of Medicine, the drug had a “response rate of as much as 78% over on to two weeks” when treating manic episodes in bipolar patients. The drug’s high rate of effectiveness is one of its most beneficial qualities and one of the strongest pros for patients considering treatment.

For an individual with bipolar disorder, episodes of both mania and depression can be debilitating. Those who allow their manic moods to go untreated often engage in risky behavior, and when these same individuals experience the depressive side of the disorder, they can become suicidal. Lithium helps to even out these imbalances and allows patients to live their lives more calmly and happily overall.

Additional Pros of Lithium for Bipolar Treatment

Lithium treatment for bipolar disorder has other benefits as well, including:

  • It can be used “to treat patients whose mood disorders affect sex drive” (Stanford Medical School). Many individuals who experience bipolar disorder struggle with their sex drives either being too high or too low. The drug will help balance this issue.
  • Lithium can also be used to treat headaches which can sometimes be a side effect of manic episodes.
  • It has been proven to be effective for the treatment of both adults and children over the age of twelve for bipolar disorder.
  • The treatment is often continued for a long time for individuals with bipolar disorder. However, lithium has been used in this way since the 1970s so there is plenty of evidence about how the medication affects individuals after long-term use.
  • Lithium can be used to help patients who are still experiencing intense symptoms become more rational and balanced. This can open them up to the possibility of attending therapeutic treatments which may not have been an option during their more volatile points.

For many of these reasons, lithium is the go-to pharmacological treatment used to stabilize patients and minimize their manic-depressive symptoms. However, like all medications, there are drawbacks to treating the condition with this particular drug.

Cons of Lithium Use for Bipolar Treatment

Lithium is a prescription-only medication because it can have very strong effects on the individual who uses it. As stated by the NLM, you should “talk to your doctor about the risks of using this medication for your condition” before you begin your treatment regimen. Some of the possible drawbacks of lithium treatment are:

lithium side effects

Lithium can cause headaches and drowsiness.

  • Side Effects
    • The side effects caused by lithium use are often not intense, but they can be problematic depending on their severity and the user. Some side effects of the drug include:
      • Hand tremors
      • Acne
      • Restlessness
      • Swollen lips
      • Pain in the joints and muscles
      • Sensitivity to cold
      • Drowsiness
      • Concentration problems
      • Weight gain
      • Vomiting
      • Indigestion
      • Constipation
      • Brittle nails
      • Thirst
      • Frequent urination
      • Anemia
      • Vertigo
    • The drug can also cause some extremely dangerous side effects which require cessation of the treatment and even hospitalization such as
      • Coma
      • Seizures
      • Blackouts
      • Hallucinations
  • Hair Loss
    • Some individuals who use the drug complain of hair loss. It is important to understand that this condition could potentially occur and that you should be prepared for that possibility.
  • Toxicity
    • “Lithium salts are toxic; the difference between a helpful dose and toxic dose is small” (Stanford). For this reason, patients must pay very close attention to their dosage amounts.
  • Contraindications
    • There are certain medical conditions which lithium can exacerbate. If the drug is being taken for the purpose of treating bipolar disorder, the individual must not also suffer from
      • Renal disease
      • Dehydration
      • Brain damage
      • Problems with sodium intake
      • Cardiovascular disease
  • Pregnancy
    • When lithium is taken during pregnancy, “there is a risk of harm to the fetus, such as cardiac problems” (HealthDirect). Patients who are attempting to get pregnant should discuss the possible issues associated with lithium use with their physician.
  • Thyroid and Kidney Dysfunction
    • There is a possibility that the drug may cause kidney or thyroid dysfunction so individuals who have already had experience with kidney or thyroid disease should not take the medication. However, taking it over a long period of time can cause issues in these same areas; “therefore people must have blood samples taken to determine lithium levels as well as testing for kidney and thyroid function” (
  • Reoccurrence
    • Taking lithium as a treatment for bipolar disorder can sometimes result in reoccurrence of the disorder’s symptoms if the drug is suddenly discontinued. This means an individual who suddenly stops taking their medication could experience the symptoms of bipolar disorder again very quickly, often at an even more intense level.

Lithium has many possible side effects and there are many cons against using it as a treatment for bipolar disorder. Patients should discuss all of these possible issues with their doctor and determine which, if any, may keep them from using the medication safely.

There are a number of pros and cons to lithium use for this specific condition. In many cases, however, and when prescribed and used safely, the drug is a very effective treatment for bipolar disorder.