Sodium Heparin vs. Lithium Heparin

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

In this lesson, you're going to learn about two complexes known as sodium heparin and lithium heparin. You'll also find out when one or the other would be preferred in practice.


When we think of blood thinners, we think of medications like warfarin, better known as Coumadin. Coumadin is an anticoagulant, a substance that prevents the formation of blood clots.

A lesser known anticoagulant is called heparin, which can be used to prevent deep vein thrombosis, pulmonary embolism, and arterial thromboembolism. But there is more than one version of it. Two of these versions are sodium heparin and lithium heparin. Let's compare and contrast the two.

Technical Difference

So what's in a name? We can surmise from the terms 'sodium heparin' and 'lithium heparin' that they are slightly different versions of the drug heparin. More technically, they are salts of heparin. Pharmacologically speaking, a salt is an ionizable drug that is added to a counter-ion in order to create a neutral substance.

The simplest example of this is table salt, which involves two ions, Na+ and Cl-. We'll say Na+ is the ion and Cl- is the counter-ion.

When the negatively charged chloride ion is added to the positively charged sodium ion, the two form a neutral compound:

Na+ + Cl- = NaCl

This same exact logic can be applied to describing sodium heparin vs. lithium heparin. They are both salts of heparin.

  • Na+ + Heparin- = Sodium Heparin
  • Lithium+ + Heparin- = Lithium Heparin

Practical Difference

So, in practice, what's the difference then? Both salts can be applied to blood collection tubes in order to prevent blood from clotting. This is helpful to do prior to testing for one thing or another. What the test is for determines which salt to use.

For instance, when testing electrolytes, the use of lithium heparin may provide a higher level of accuracy. This is because the sodium in sodium heparin may overestimate a person's natural levels of sodium (an electrolyte).

On the flipside, you wouldn't want to use lithium heparin if you're testing a person for lithium in their blood by the same logic as sodium.

Sodium heparin is also preferred for tests related to:

  • The immune system
  • Cytogenetics (testing for chromosomal abnormalities)
  • Flow cytometry (using technology to quantify the properties of cells)

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