The use of lithium for the treatment of bipolar disorder: Recommendations from clinical practice guidelines

J Affect Disord. 2017 Aug 1;217:266-280. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2017.03.052. Epub 2017 Mar 27.


Background: Lithium is an effective mood stabilizer that is used principally for the management of bipolar disorder (BD). Its administration is complex and often requires sophisticated management and assiduous monitoring. When considering the use of lithium therapy for bipolar disorder, clinicians are advised to refer to recommendations outlined in clinical practice guidelines (CPGs); but because of varying emphases placed by different international CPGs, recommendations addressing the practical use of lithium lack consistency.

Method: In order to inform clinicians of optimal lithium therapy for bipolar disorder, we compared and synthesized recommendations for the treatment of bipolar disorder made by recognized CPGs internationally. We conducted a search of the literature and extracted guidance across multiple clinical issues, including clinical indications, disorder subtypes, additional uses, special populations, practical aspects, and side effects.

Results: Collectively, CPGs consider lithium most robustly as a first-line intervention for maintenance treatment of bipolar disorder and strongly for the treatment of mania, with relatively modest support for the management of acute bipolar depression. Additionally, there is consensus across the CPGs that lithium tangibly reduces the risk of suicide. Generally, CPGs provide guidance on the many facets of initiating and maintaining patients on lithium therapy, but individually the CPGs varied in terms of depth and practical guidance they provide across these areas. However, consensus was established across many key areas of practice such as the ideal lithium plasma concentration for maintenance and monitoring (0.6-0.8mmol/L), along with the need for regular monitoring of renal and endocrine function. However, with more complex aspects (e.g., atypical presentations) and in special populations (e.g., youth; pregnancy and post-partum; older adults), guidance varied considerably and clear consensus recommendations were more difficult to achieve. In younger adults desirable plasma lithium levels of 0.6-0.8mmol/L can perhaps be achieved with comparatively lower doses and in the very elderly it may be prudent to target lower plasma levels in the first instance. These are important practical points for consideration that, along with many others offered throughout the article, should assist clinicians in dissecting the more complex aspects of management with greater precision.

Limitations: This review was limited to CPGs written in English. CPGs are themselves limited by reliance on evidence that often has little resemblance to real-world presentations. An important area that is not sufficiently addressed in the CPGs is clear guidance on the cessation of lithium therapy.

Conclusions: Further research is needed on many aspects of lithium therapy and this alongside existing knowledge needs to be used more consistently to inform CPGs, which should also incorporate empirical evidence and clinical experience. The recommendations in this paper provide a useful synthesis of guidance available currently.

Keywords: Bipolar disorder; Clinical guidance; Depression; Lithium; Mania; Recommendations.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Antidepressive Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Bipolar Disorder / drug therapy*
  • Consensus
  • Humans
  • Lithium / therapeutic use*
  • Practice Guidelines as Topic*


  • Antidepressive Agents
  • Lithium