Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, and ability to function. These are not the normal ups and downs; the symptoms of bipolar disorder are severe. They can result in damaged relationships, poor job or school performance, and even suicide.
About 5.7 million American adults or about 2.6 percent of the population age 18 and older in any given year have bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder typically develops in late adolescence or early adulthood. However, some people have their first symptoms during childhood, and some develop them late in life. Bipolar disorder is often not recognized as an illness, and people may suffer for years before it is properly diagnosed and treated. It is a long-term illness that requires careful management throughout the person’s life.
Bipolar disorder causes dramatic mood swings from overly high and, or, irritable to sad and hopeless, and then back again, often with periods of normal mood in between. Severe changes in energy and behavior go along with these changes. The periods of highs and lows are called episodes of mania and depression.
Signs and symptoms of manic episode:
Increased energy, activity, and restlessness
Excessively high, overly good, euphoric mood
Racing thoughts and talking fast, jumping from one idea to another
Distractibility or lack of concentration
Little sleep needed
Unrealistic beliefs in one’s abilities and powers
A lasting period of behavior that is different from usual
Increased sexual drive
Abuse of drugs—cocaine, alcohol, and sleep medications
Provocative, intrusive, or aggressive behavior
Denial that anything is wrong
A manic episode is diagnosed if elevated mood occurs with three or more of the other symptoms most of the day, nearly every day, for one week or longer. If the mood is irritable, four additional symptoms must be present.
Signs and symptoms of depressive episode:
Lasting sad, anxious, or empty mood
Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed, including sex
Decreased energy, a feeling of fatigue or of being “slowed down”
Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
Restlessness or irritability
Sleeping too much, or inability to sleep
Change in appetite and, or, unintended weight loss or gain
Chronic pain or other persistent physical symptoms not caused by physical illness or injury
Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts
A depressive episode is diagnosed if five or more of these symptoms last most of the day, nearly every day, for a period of two weeks or longer.
A mild to moderate level of mania is called hypomania. Hypomania may feel good to the person who experiences it and may even be associated with good functioning and enhanced productivity. Thus, even when family and friends learn to recognize the mood swings as possible bipolar disorder, the person may deny that anything is wrong. Without proper treatment, however, hypomania can become severe mania in some people or can switch to depression.
Sometimes, severe episodes of mania or depression include symptoms of psychosis. Common psychotic symptoms are hallucinations (hearing, seeing, or otherwise sensing the presence of things not actually there) and delusions (false, strongly held beliefs not influenced by logical reasoning or explained by a person’s usual cultural concepts). Psychotic symptoms in bipolar disorder tend to reflect the extreme mood state at the time. For example, delusions of grandiosity, such as believing one is the president or has special powers or wealth, may occur during mania; delusions of guilt or worthlessness, such as believing that one is ruined and penniless or has committed some terrible crime, may appear during depression. People with bipolar disorder who have these symptoms are sometimes incorrectly diagnosed as having schizophrenia, another severe mental illness.
It may be helpful to think of the various mood states in bipolar disorder as a spectrum. At the bottom end is severe depression, above which is moderate depression and then mild low mood, which many people call the short-lived blues. It is termed dysthymia when it is chronic. Then there is normal or balanced mood, above which comes hypomania (mild to moderate mania), and then severe mania.
In some people, however, symptoms of mania and depression may occur together in what is called a mixed bipolar state. Symptoms of a mixed state often include agitation, trouble sleeping, significant change in appetite, psychosis, and suicidal thinking. A person may have a very sad, hopeless mood while at the same time feeling extremely energized.
Bipolar disorder may appear to be a problem other than mental illness—for instance, alcohol or drug abuse, poor school or work performance, or strained interpersonal relationships. Such problems in fact may be signs of an underlying mood disorder.
Some people with bipolar disorder become suicidal. Anyone who is thinking about committing suicide needs immediate attention, preferably from a mental health professional or a physician. Anyone who talks about suicide should be taken seriously. Risk for suicide appears to be higher earlier in the course of the illness. Therefore, recognizing bipolar disorder early and learning how best to manage it may decrease the risk of death by suicide.
Course of Bipolar Disorder
Episodes of mania and depression typically recur across one’s life span. Between episodes, most people with bipolar disorder are free of symptoms, but as many as one-third of people have some residual symptoms. A small percentage of people experience chronic unremitting symptoms despite treatment.
The classic form of the illness, which involves recurrent episodes of mania and depression, is called bipolar I disorder. Some people, however, never develop severe mania but instead experience milder episodes of hypomania that alternate with depression; this form of the illness is called bipolar II disorder. When four or more episodes of illness occur within a 12-month period, a person is said to have rapid-cycling bipolar disorder. Some people experience multiple episodes within a single week, or even within a single day. Rapid cycling tends to develop later in the course of illness and is more common among women than men.
People with bipolar disorder can lead healthy and productive lives when the illness is effectively treated. Without treatment, however, the natural course of bipolar disorder tends to worsen. Over time a person may suffer more frequent rapid cycling and more severe manic and depressive episodes than those experienced when the illness first appeared. But in most cases, proper treatment can help reduce the frequency and severity of episodes and can help people with bipolar disorder maintain a good quality of life.
Children and Adolescents with Bipolar Disorder
Both children and adolescents can develop bipolar disorder. It is more likely to affect the children of parents who have the illness.
Unlike many adults with bipolar disorder, whose episodes tend to be more clearly defined, children and young adolescents with the illness often experience very fast mood swings between depression and mania many times within a day. Children with mania are more likely to be irritable and prone to destructive tantrums than to be overly happy and elated. Mixed symptoms also are common in youths with bipolar disorder. Older adolescents who develop the illness may have more classic, adult-type episodes and symptoms.
Bipolar disorder in children and adolescents can be hard to tell apart from other problems that may occur in these age groups. For example, while irritability and aggressiveness can indicate bipolar disorder, they also can be symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, or of other types of mental disorders that are more common among adults, such as major depression or schizophrenia. Drug abuse also may lead to such symptoms.
For any illness, however, effective treatment depends on appropriate diagnosis. Children or adolescents with emotional and behavioral symptoms should be carefully evaluated by a mental-health professional.
Conditions that Can Co-occur with Bipolar Disorder
Alcohol and drug abuse are very common among people with bipolar disorder. Research findings suggest that many factors may contribute to these substance abuse problems, including self-medication of symptoms, mood symptoms either brought on or perpetuated by substance abuse, and risk factors that may influence the occurrence of both bipolar disorder and substance-use disorders. Treatment for co-occurring substance abuse, when present, is an important part of the overall treatment plan.
Anxiety disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder, also may be common in people with bipolar disorder. Co-occurring anxiety disorders may respond to treatments used for bipolar disorder, or they may require separate treatment.
Scientists are learning about the possible causes of bipolar disorder. Most scientists now agree that there is no single cause for bipolar disorder; rather, many factors act together to produce the illness.
Because bipolar disorder tends to run in families, researchers have been seeking specific genes that may increase a person’s chance of developing the illness. But genes are not the whole story. Studies of identical twins, who share all the same genes, indicate that both genes and other factors play a role in bipolar disorder. If bipolar disorder was caused entirely by genetics, then the identical twin of someone with the illness would always develop the illness, and research has shown that this is not the case. But if one twin has bipolar disorder, the other twin is more likely to develop the illness than is another sibling.
In addition, findings suggest that bipolar disorder, like other mental illnesses, does not occur because of a single gene. It is likely that many genes act together, in combination with other factors such as the person’s environment. Finding these genes, each of which contributes only a small amount toward the vulnerability to bipolar disorder, has been extremely difficult. But scientists expect that the advanced research tools now being used will lead to these discoveries and to new and better treatments for bipolar disorder.
Brain-imaging studies are helping scientists learn what goes wrong in the brain to produce bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. New brain-imaging techniques allow researchers to take pictures of the living brain at work, to examine its structure and activity, without the need for surgery or other invasive procedures. These techniques include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). There is evidence from imaging studies that the brains of people with bipolar disorder may differ from the brains of healthy individuals. As the differences are more clearly identified and defined through research, scientists will gain a better understanding of the underlying causes of the illness and eventually may be able to predict which types of treatment will work most effectively.
Most people with bipolar disorder, even those with the most severe forms, can achieve substantial stabilization of their mood swings and related symptoms with proper treatment. Because bipolar disorder is a recurrent illness, long-term preventive treatment is strongly recommended and almost always indicated. A strategy that combines medication and psychosocial treatment is optimal for managing the disorder over time.
In most cases, bipolar disorder is much better controlled if treatment is continuous rather than on and off. But even when there are no breaks in treatment, mood changes can occur and should be reported immediately to your doctor. The doctor may be able to prevent a full-blown episode by making adjustments to the treatment plan. Working closely with the doctor and communicating openly about treatment concerns and options can make a difference in treatment effectiveness.
In addition, keeping a chart of daily mood symptoms, treatments, sleep patterns, and life events may help people with bipolar disorder and their families to better understand the illness. This chart also can help the doctor track and treat the illness most effectively.
While primary-care physicians who do not specialize in psychiatry also may prescribe these medications, it is recommended that people with bipolar disorder see a psychiatrist for treatment.
Medications known as mood stabilizers are usually prescribed to help control bipolar disorder. Several types of mood stabilizers are available. In general, people with bipolar disorder continue treatment with mood stabilizers for years. Other medications are added when necessary, typically for shorter periods, to treat episodes of mania or depression.
Lithium, the first mood-stabilizing medication approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treatment of mania, is often very effective in controlling mania and preventing the recurrence of both manic and depressive episodes.
Anticonvulsant medications such as valproate or carbamazepine also can have mood-stabilizing effects and may be especially useful for difficult-to-treat bipolar episodes. Valproate was FDA-approved in 1995 for treatment of mania. Newer anticonvulsant medications, including lamotrigine, gabapentin, and topiramate, are being studied to determine how well they work in stabilizing mood cycles. Anticonvulsant medications may be combined with lithium, or with each other, for maximum effect.
Children and adolescents with bipolar disorder generally are treated with lithium, but valproate and carbamazepine also are used. Researchers are evaluating the safety and efficacy of these and other psychotropic medications in children and adolescents. There is some evidence that valproate may lead to adverse hormone changes in teenage girls and polycystic ovary syndrome in women who begin taking the medication before age 20. Therefore, young female patients taking valproate should be monitored carefully by a physician.
Women with bipolar disorder who wish to conceive or who become pregnant face special challenges due to the possible harmful effects of existing mood stabilizing medications on the developing fetus and the nursing infant. Therefore, the benefits and risks of all available treatment options should be discussed with a clinician skilled in this area. New treatments with reduced risks during pregnancy and lactation are under study.
Research has shown that people with bipolar disorder are at risk of switching into mania or hypomania, or of developing rapid cycling, during treatment with antidepressant medication. Therefore, mood-stabilizing medications generally are required, alone or in combination with antidepressants, to protect people with bipolar disorder from this switch. Lithium and valproate are the most commonly used mood-stabilizing drugs today. However, research studies continue to evaluate the potential mood-stabilizing effects of newer medications.
Atypical antipsychotic medications, including clozapine and ziprasidone, are being studied as possible treatments for bipolar disorder. Evidence suggests clozapine may be helpful as a mood stabilizer for people who do not respond to lithium or anticonvulsants. Other research has supported the efficacy of olanzapine for acute mania, an indication that has recently received FDA approval. Olanzapine may also help relieve psychotic depression.
If insomnia is a problem, a high-potency benzodiazepine medication such as clonazepam or lorazepam may be helpful. However, because these medications may be habit-forming, they are best prescribed short-term. Other types of sedative medications, such as zolpidem, are sometimes used instead.
Changes to the treatment plan may be needed at various times during the course of bipolar disorder to manage the illness most effectively. A psychiatrist should guide any changes in type or dose of medication. It is important to tell the psychiatrist about all other prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, or natural supplements you may be taking. This is important because certain medications and supplements taken together may cause adverse reactions.
To reduce the chance of relapse or developing a new episode, it is important to stick to the treatment plan. Talk to your doctor if you have any concerns about the medications.
People with bipolar disorder often have abnormal thyroid gland function. Because too much or too little thyroid hormone alone can lead to mood and energy changes, it is important that thyroid levels are carefully monitored by a physician.
People with rapid cycling tend to have co-occurring thyroid problems and may need to take thyroid pills in addition to their medications for bipolar disorder. Lithium treatment may cause low thyroid levels in some people, resulting in the need for thyroid supplementation.
Medication Side Effects
Before starting a new medication for bipolar disorder, always talk with your psychiatrist or pharmacist about possible side effects. Depending on the medication, side effects may include weight gain, nausea, tremors, reduced sexual drive, anxiety, hair loss, movement problems, or dry mouth. Be sure to tell the doctor about all side effects during treatment. She may be able to change the dose or offer a different medication to relieve them. Your medication should not be changed or stopped without the psychiatrist’s guidance.
As an addition to medication, psychosocial treatments—including certain forms of psychotherapy (or talk therapy)—are helpful in providing support, education, and guidance to patients and their families. Studies have shown that psychosocial interventions can lead to increased mood stability, fewer hospitalizations, and improved functioning in several areas. A licensed psychologist, social worker, or counselor typically provides these therapies and often works together with the psychiatrist to monitor progress. The number, frequency, and type of sessions should be based on the treatment needs of each person.
Psychosocial interventions commonly used for bipolar disorder are cognitive behavioral therapy, psychoeducation, family therapy, and a newer technique—interpersonal and social rhythm therapy. Researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health are studying how these interventions compare to one another when added to medication treatment for bipolar disorder.
Cognitive behavioral therapy helps people with bipolar disorder learn to change inappropriate or negative thought patterns and behaviors associated with the illness.
Psychoeducation involves teaching people with bipolar disorder about the illness and its treatment, and how to recognize signs of relapse so that early intervention can be sought before a full-blown episode occurs. Psychoeducation may also be helpful for family members.
Family therapy uses strategies to reduce the level of family distress that may either contribute to or result from the ill person’s symptoms.
Interpersonal and social rhythm therapy helps people with bipolar disorder both to improve interpersonal relationships and to regulate daily routines. Daily routines and sleep schedules may help protect against manic episodes.
As with medication, it is important to follow the treatment plan for any psychosocial intervention to achieve the greatest benefit.
In situations where medication, psychosocial treatment, and the combination of these interventions prove ineffective or work too slowly to relieve severe symptoms such as psychosis or suicidal thoughts, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) may be considered. ECT may also be considered to treat acute episodes when medical conditions, including pregnancy, make the use of medications too risky. ECT is a highly effective treatment for severe depressive, manic, or mixed episodes. The possibility of long-lasting memory problems has been significantly reduced with modern ECT techniques. However, the potential benefits and risks of ECT and of available alternative interventions, should be carefully reviewed and discussed with individuals considering this treatment and, when appropriate, with family or friends.
Herbal and Natural Supplements
Herbal or natural supplements, such as St. John’s Wort, have not been well studied, and little is known about their effects on bipolar disorder. Because the FDA does not regulate their production, different brands of these supplements can contain different amounts of active ingredient.
Before trying herbal or natural supplements, it is important to discuss them with your doctor. There is evidence that St. John’s Wort can reduce the effectiveness of certain medications. In addition, like prescription antidepressants, St. John’s Wort may cause a switch into mania in some individuals with bipolar disorder, especially if no mood stabilizer is being taken.
Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil are being studied to determine their usefulness, alone and when added to conventional medications, for long-term treatment of bipolar disorder.
Even though episodes of mania and depression come and go, it is important to understand that bipolar disorder is a long-term illness that has no cure. Staying on treatment, even during periods without episodes, can help keep the disease under control and reduce the chance of having recurrent, worsening episodes.
People with bipolar disorder may need help to get help:
Often people with bipolar disorder do not realize how impaired they are, or they blame their problems on some cause other than mental illness.
A person with bipolar disorder may need strong encouragement from family and friends to seek treatment. Family physicians can play an important role in providing a referral to a mental-health professional.
Sometimes a family member or friend may need to take the person with bipolar disorder for proper mental health evaluation and treatment.
A person who is in the midst of a severe episode may need to be hospitalized for his or her own protection and for much-needed treatment. There may be times when the person must be hospitalized against his or her wishes.
Ongoing encouragement and support are needed after a person obtains treatment, because it may take a while to find the best treatment plan for the individual.
In some cases, individuals with bipolar disorder may agree, when the disorder is under good control, to a preferred course of action in the event of a future manic or depressive relapse.
Like other serious illnesses, bipolar disorder is also hard on spouses, family members, friends, and employers.
Family members of people with bipolar disorder often have to cope with the person’s serious behavioral problems, such as wild spending sprees during mania or extreme withdrawal from others during depression, and the lasting consequences of these behaviors.
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Last Reviewed: 10 Jan 2008
Last Reviewed By: Laura Stephens