If you, or a person close to you, have frequent episodes of extreme mood swings, going between periods of mania, or an exaggerated elevated "good" mood, to quickly experiencing a lowering or depressed mood often without reason, you may have bipolar disorder. Let's talk about this condition, and how it can be managed.
As just stated, Bipolar disorder is a brain condition that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, and ability to carry out daily tasks. Symptoms can be severe, lasting from days to months. Someone with bipolar disorder may be easily distracted, have little need for sleep, exercise poor judgment and temper control, and exhibit reckless behavior and a lack of self control. They may have very elevated moods, be very involved in their activities, and may occasionally seem very agitated or irritated.
On the flip side, depressive symptoms of bipolar disorder may include daily sadness, a difficulty concentrating, eating problems, a lack of energy, feeling worthless, and thoughts of death or suicide.
People with bipolar disorder have a higher risk of suicide than people without this condition. They also may abuse alcohol or other substances, which usually only make their symptoms worse.
So, how is bipolar disorder treated?
The main goals of treatment are to help the person avoid moving from one phase to another, avoid the need to stay in a hospital or treatment center, to help the patient function as well as possible between episodes, to prevent self-injury and suicide, and make bipolar episodes less frequent and less severe. Keep in mind periods of depression or mania often return in someone with bipolar disorder, even when they are treated.
Drugs, called mood stabilizers, are usually the first line of treatment. Often accompanied by psychotherapy and psychoeducation. A person with bipolar disorder may need stronger medicines as well, such as anti-psychotic or anti-seizure drugs. Anti-anxiety drugs, antidepressants to treat depression, are problematic because they can increase the likelihood of a manic episode even when people also take a mood stabilizer.
Some patients may have a procedure called electroconvulsive therapy, in which a small amount of electrical current will be delivered to their heads to cause seizure activity in the brain to treat either depression or mania. Evidence to support this treatment exists, but it limited.
Support programs for people with bipolar disorder are important. Family programs that combine support and education about bipolar disorder may help families cope and reduce the odds of symptoms returning. Programs that offer outreach and community support services can help people who do not have family and social support.
It is also important for people with bipolar disorder to learn to cope with their symptoms, get enough sleep, live a healthy lifestyle, avoid recreational drugs, and take their medications correctly, and learn to watch for the early signs of return symptoms, having a plan of action to know what to do if and when they do return.
Also, keep in mind, support is very important in the treatment of bipolar disorder. Family members can help the patient find the right support services and make sure the patient takes their medication correctly.
Review Date: 2/19/2016
Reviewed By: Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.