What is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder, or manic depression, is a serious brain disorder that causes extreme shifts in mood, energy, and functioning. It affects 2.3 million adult Americans, or 1.2 percent of the population. Bipolar disorder is characterized by episodes of mania and depression that can last from days to months. Bipolar disorder is a chronic condition with recurring episodes that often begin in adolescence or early adulthood. It generally requires ongoing treatment.

What are the symptoms of mania?

What are the symptoms of depression?

Depression is the other phase of bipolar disorder. The symptoms of depression may include:

What is a "mixed" state?

A mixed state is when symptoms of mania and depression occur at the same time. During a mixed state depressed mood accompanies manic activation. The symptoms during a mixed state often include agitation, trouble sleeping, significant change in appetite, psychosis, and suicidal thinking.

What is rapid cycling?

Sometimes individuals may experience regularly alternating periods of mania and depression. When four or more episodes of illness occur within a 12-month period, the individual is said to have bipolar disorder with rapid cycling. Rapid cycling is more common in women.

What are the causes of bipolar disorder?

While the exact cause of bipolar disorder is not known, researchers believe it is the result of a chemical imbalance in the certain parts of the brain. Scientists have found evidence of a genetic predisposition to the illness. Bipolar disorder tends to run in families, and close relatives of someone with bipolar disorder are more likely to be affected by the disorder. Sometimes serious life events such as a serious loss, chronic illness, or financial problem, can trigger an episode in some individuals with a predisposition to the disorder. There are other possible "triggers" of bipolar episodes: the treatment of depression with an antidepressant medication may trigger a switch into mania, sleep deprivation may trigger mania, or hypothyroidism may produce depression or mood instability. It is important to note that bipolar episodes can also occur without an obvious trigger.

How is bipolar disorder treated?

While there is no cure for bipolar disorder it is a highly treatable and manageable illness. After an accurate diagnosis, most people (80 to 90 percent) can be successfully treated. Medication is an essential part of successful treatment for people with bipolar disorder. Maintenance treatment with a mood stabilizer substantially reduces the number and severity of episodes for most people, although episodes of mania or depression may occur and require a specific additional treatment. In addition, psychosocial therapies including, cognitive-behavioral therapy, interpersonal therapy, family therapy, and psychoeducation are important to help people understand the illness and cope with the stresses that can trigger episodes. Changes in medications or doses may be necessary, as well as changes in treatment plans during different stages of the illness.

What are the side effects of the medications used to treat bipolar disorder?

All medications have side effects. Different medications produce different side effects, and people differ in the amount and severity of side effects they experience. Side effects can often be treated by changing the dose of the medication, switching to a different medication, or treating the side effect directly with an additional medication.

Side effects of medications used to treat mania.

Reviewed by Rex Cowdry, M.D. NAMI medical director, May 2001