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Bipolar Disorder

Alternate Names

  • manic depression
  • manic depressive disorder

Definition

Bipolar disorder is characterized by episodes of mania, or hypomania, and depression. Mania is an overly "high" period. Hypomania is a milder form of mania. Depression is a "low" period.

What is going on in the body?

Bipolar disorder is a disorder of the brain. Researchers believe that chemicals called neurotransmitters are involved. Nerve impulses cause the release of neurotransmitters from one nerve cell to the next. This release allows cells to communicate with one another. Too little or too much of these important neurotransmitters may be released. This can cause or contribute to bipolar disorder. Some of the neurotransmitters believed to be linked to bipolar disorder are serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine.

Risks

What are the causes and risks of the condition?

Usually bipolar disorder first appears when the person is between the ages of 15 and 25. Teens who have had a major depressive episode are at greater risk for developing bipolar disorder in their late teens or 20s.
While the exact cause of bipolar disorder is unknown, genetics does seem to play a role. Fifty percent of all individuals with bipolar disorder have at least one parent who has a mood disorder.

Prevention

What can be done to prevent the condition?

There is no known way to prevent bipolar disorder.

Diagnosed

How is the condition diagnosed?

Diagnosis of bipolar disorder begins with a medical history and physical exam. If symptoms are extreme, the healthcare provider may diagnose bipolar I disorder. If symptoms are less intense and severe, a bipolar II diagnosis may be made.

Long Term Effects

What are the long-term effects of the condition?

Without treatment, people with bipolar disorder generally have lifelong episodes of mania and depression. The episodes tend to become more frequent and more severe. The disorder can disrupt social relationships and ability to work. The person may be unable to carry out normal daily activities. People with untreated bipolar disorder have a high risk for suicide.

Other Risks

What are the risks to others?

Bipolar disorder is not contagious. However, it does tend to run in families.

Treatments

What are the treatments for the condition?

People with bipolar disorder are generally treated with a combination of psychotherapy and medication. Medications used to treat bipolar disorder are known as mood stabilizers. Lithium (i.e., Eskalith, Lithobid) is often the first choice.
Other mood stabilizers include anticonvulsants, such as valproate sodium (i.e., Depacon) or carbamazepine (i.e., Tefretol, Carbatrol). Various combinations of these medications may be used, along with atypical antispycotics in some cases. Many other medicines are currently being studied for treatment of bipolar disorder.

Side Effects

What are the side effects of the treatments?

Lithium may cause increased thirst and urination. It may also cause nausea and trembling. It may cause kidney or thyroid problems, among other side-effects.
Valproate sodium may cause hormone changes in teen girls. This can lead to polycystic ovary syndrome. It may also cause hair loss, liver problems, and may lead to weight gain, among other side-effects.
Medications used to treat bipolar disorder in a woman can harm her fetus or nursing infant.

After Treatment

What happens after treatment for the condition?

Treatment of bipolar disorder is generally lifelong. Successful treatment allows the individual to function well at work and home. Some people, however, have chronic symptoms despite ongoing treatment.

Monitor

How is the condition monitored?

An individual who has bipolar disorder generally has regular visits with the healthcare provider. Blood tests may be done periodically to monitor levels of medication. Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the healthcare provider.

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