Heparin-induced thrombocytopenia (HIT) is an uncommon but potentially devastating complication of anticoagulation with unfractionated heparin (UFH) or low-molecular-weight heparin (LMWH). Our objective was to determine and compare the incidences of HIT in surgical and medical patients receiving thromboprophylaxis with either UFH or LMWH. All relevant studies identified in the MEDLINE database (1984-2004), not limited by language, and from reference lists of key articles were evaluated. Randomized and nonrandomized controlled trials comparing prophylaxis with UFH and LMWH and measuring HIT or thrombocytopenia as outcomes were included. Two reviewers independently extracted data on thromboprophylaxis (type, dose, frequency, and duration), definition of thrombocytopenia, HIT assay, and rates of the following outcomes: HIT, thrombocytopenia, and thromboembolic events. HIT was defined as a decrease in platelets to less than 50% or to less than 100 x 10(9)/L and positive laboratory HIT assay. Fifteen studies (7287 patients) were eligible: 2 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) measuring HIT (1014 patients), 3 prospective studies (1464 patients) with nonrandomized comparison groups in which HIT was appropriately measured in both groups, and 10 RCTs (4809 patients) measuring thrombocytopenia but not HIT. Three analyses were performed using a random effects model and favored the use of LMWH: (1) RCTs measuring HIT showed an odds ratio (OR) of 0.10 (95% confidence interval [CI], 0.01-0.2; P = .03); (2) prospective studies measuring HIT showed an OR of 0.10 (95% CI, 0.03-0.33; P < .001); (3) all 15 studies measured thrombocytopenia. The OR was 0.47 (95% CI, 0.22-1.02; P = .06). The inverse variance-weighted average that determined the absolute risk for HIT with LMWH was 0.2%, and with UFH the risk was 2.6%. Most studies were of patients after orthopedic surgery.