What is Fractionated Heparin?

T. Broderick

Fractionated heparin, also known as low-molecular-weight heparin (LMWH), is a synthetic anticoagulation medication used to treat thrombosis. Derived from naturally occurring unfractionated heparin, fractionated heparin is more predictable when used as a medication and has fewer short- and long-term side effects. A number of methods exist to produce LMWH, each process creating a medication with different biological properties. As of 2011, research is ongoing into the best uses of LMWH.

Fractionated heparin can help prevent blood clots in obese individuals, who are considered high risk for such a condition.
Fractionated heparin can help prevent blood clots in obese individuals, who are considered high risk for such a condition.

Fractionated heparin is a powerful tool in preventing thrombosis or stopping the growth of an already formed clot. In medical conditions such as deep-vein thrombosis, a single injection of LMWH can halt clot growth, decreasing a patient’s risk of pulmonary embolism. Additionally, LMWH can prevent clot formation in high-risk individuals such as the obese, elderly and patients undergoing surgery. In all cases, though, fractionated heparin cannot break down already formed clots. A physician may have to use a combination of blood thinners, anticoagulant medications and surgery to destroy the clot.

Fractionated heparin can help prevent blood clots in high risk individuals like the elderly.
Fractionated heparin can help prevent blood clots in high risk individuals like the elderly.

Unlike unfractionated heparin, fractionated heparin is a more consistent medication and poses less risk to patients. Unfractionated heparin, gathered from natural sources such as cows and pigs, has a varying range of effectiveness due to the variation the compound’s molecular weight. For example, the use of unfractionated heparin may over-inhibit the body’s ability to clot blood. For an already weakened patient, this side effect can be deadly. Though many forms of LMWH exist, the use of one will result in predictable and consistent results upon the patient.

Heparin is often used to flush central line catheters to prevent blood from clotting in the tubes.
Heparin is often used to flush central line catheters to prevent blood from clotting in the tubes.

Pharmaceutical companies produce fractionated heparin through a variety of processes. Six major production methods exist, each producing a type of LMWH that has slightly different anticoagulant effects. This range of effectiveness is beneficial for patients, as it allows a physician to choose an anticoagulant that will have the desired effect but not put the patient in unnecessary danger. Another benefit of all forms of LMWH is that the medication has a lower risk of side effects than unfractionated heparin. For example, a patient taking LMWH for a long time has a lower risk of developing osteoporosis.

Compression stockings may be helpful in the treatment of DVT.
Compression stockings may be helpful in the treatment of DVT.

Research continues into refining the best uses of fractionated heparin. Research published in 2003 showed that a certain form of LMWH was more effective than another form in preventing thrombosis in cancer patients. By extension, this research proves that the medical community still has much to learn about LMWH. It is very likely that as time goes on, LMWH will be able to save even more lives.

Heparin is used to treat and prevent blood clots in the veins, arteries and lungs.
Heparin is used to treat and prevent blood clots in the veins, arteries and lungs.
A pulmonary embolism is a condition where an artery in the lungs becomes blocked by excess fat or a tumor.
A pulmonary embolism is a condition where an artery in the lungs becomes blocked by excess fat or a tumor.

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